Research

Crowdsourcing Offers A New Hope For Antibiotics Research

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The need for new antibiotics is real, with no new types of antibiotics having been discovered or developed since 1984. The World Health Organization insists that growing antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today, but there is very little economic incentive for a pharmaceutical company to develop new antibiotics.

Fortunately, raised awareness and advancing technologies have driven progress since the Antibiotic Resistance Project released A Scientific Roadmap for Antibiotic Discovery in 2016. And thanks to crowdsourcing, researchers have found new ways to collaborate that could fill today's gaping void in antibiotics research.

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It's Always In The Last Place You Look

Crowdsourcing isn't entirely new to the world of antibiotics. To manufacturers, early antibiotics were so successful and so lucrative that they asked for help collecting samples decades ago. In its 1951 annual report, Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) included a pre-addressed envelope along with a note asking shareholders to mail a teaspoon of soil to the company's headquarters. In another example, Eli Lilly provided test tubes to members of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. And those searches resulted in the discovery of some important antibiotics that remain crucial today.

Getting involved in sample collection has always been easy because most of today's antibiotics are derived from natural products. Penicillin, for example, was isolated from a fungus, and azithromycin (commonly prescribed in the form of a Z-Pak) was isolated from a bacterium. This makes exotic parts of the planet with high biodiversity, such as rainforests or coral reefs, great places to explore to find natural sources of next-generation antibiotics. But for those of us who don't have scuba diving gear handy, it turns out that your local park can be an untapped resource with enormous potential for discovery of new therapeutics. And that's where citizen scientists come into play.

Roll Up Your Sleeves

"There are quite a few scientists in my field that have pretty large efforts where [citizen scientists] mail in samples," Dr. Brian T. Murphy told us on the Curiosity Podcast. "It's a bit complicated because of permitting issues... for good reason, you can't just have these things come in from around the world. Customs does not like when you bring in soil from [foreign] farms, so you should not do that. But it's becoming a lot easier to get involved with local citizen science efforts."

In the Murphy Lab at UIC, one of his current projects is collaborating with citizen scientists to engage in the discovery of new antibiotics from Great Lakes sponges (turns out there are sponges in the Great Lakes – who knew?) with help from divers throughout the Midwest. For citizens interested in participating elsewhere in the United States, Murphy recommended a few reputable programs:

We're All In This Together

The total burden placed on the U.S. economy alone by antibiotic-resistant infections has been estimated to be as high as $20 billion in health care costs and $35 billion a year in lost productivity. So while pharmaceutical companies may not individually have economic incentive to invest in antibiotics discovery and development, the overall population does. "It can take billions of dollars to develop the drug, and then... you can put it on the market, and then within a very short period, the bacterium can be resistant to it," Murphy told us. "So what company would invest in that? I think... at least for antibiotic discovery, there has to be a huge percentage of the for-profit motive to be removed. But we need major restructuring of our system to do that."

Fortunately, "there are not-for-profit discovery institutes, especially that focus on more third-world diseases like tuberculosis," Murphy quickly added, specifically mentioning the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and TB Alliance.

Additionally, Small World Initiative works with more than 170 schools from around the world to equip students with the knowledge and tools needed to collect soil samples that could lead to novel antibiotics. And in Australia, there's CO-ADD, The Community for Open Antimicrobial Drug Discovery, which is a global open-access screening initiative to uncover significant chemical diversity held outside of corporate screening collections. While not strictly crowdsourcing organizations, CO-ADD and SWI are great examples of the much-needed collaboration we're seeing today within the antibiotics research community.

And local efforts are popping up everywhere, with groups as small as the seven first-year UConn students who collected and tested soil samples in a course literally called "Microbe Hunting: Crowdsourcing the Discovery of New Antibiotics."

"You have to innovate," Murphy said of antibiotics research methods. And from soil sample collection locations to the methods scientists use to tap into social media and the internet to crowdsource their data and samples, the innovative future of antibiotics research may be brighter than first meets the eye.

Listen To The Podcast

To learn more about antibiotics research, scientific collaboration, and the economic factors driving today's decisions in the world of medicine, listen to our conversation with Dr. Brian T. Murphy on the Curiosity Podcast.

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