In the past, large pharmaceutical companies were the primary sources of antibiotic research. But many of these companies have abandoned the field. “Eli Lilly and Company developed the first cephalosporins,” Moellering told me, referring to familiar drugs like Keflex. “They developed a huge number of important anti-microbial agents. They had incredible chemistry and incredible research facilities, and, unfortunately, they have completely pulled out of it now. After Squibb merged with Bristol-Myers, they closed their antibacterial program,” he said, as did Abbott, which developed key agents in the past treatment of gram-negative bacteria. A recent assessment of progress in the field, from U.C.L.A., concluded, “FDA approval of new antibacterial agents decreased by 56 per cent over the past 20 years (1998-2002 vs. 1983-1987),” noting that, in the researchers’ projection of future development only six of the five hundred and six drugs currently being developed were new antibacterial agents. Drug companies are looking for blockbuster therapies that must be taken daily for decades, drugs like Lipitor, for high cholesterol, or Zyprexa, for psychiatric disorders, used by millions of people and generating many billions of dollars each year. Antibiotics are used to treat infections, and are therefore prescribed only for days or weeks. (The exception is the use of antibiotics in livestock, which is both a profit-driver and a potential cause of antibiotic resistance.)

From “Superbugs”, a rather scary article in The New Yorker.

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