NIH redoubling support in search for new antibiotics

The National Institutes of Health is redoubling support for UW-Madison researchers scouring the world for new sources of antibiotics.

This comes as more than two million drug-resistant infections are reported every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are patients in almost every hospital with an infection that has absolutely no treatment option,” said Dr. David Andes, professor of medicine and division chief of infectious diseases at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

At his research lab, scientists are studying antibacterial and antifungal resistance with an eye toward new drug treatments. He’s leading the NIH-funded research team alongside Cameron Currie, a professor of bacteriology, and Tim Bugni, a professor in the pharmacy school.

This team got an initial five-year grant for $16 million in April 2014. Now, the NIH has renewed that funding with a $30 million, five-year grant starting in April.

“This is exciting, because our work is critical to finding new sources,” Andes said.

That’s important, he says, because the pace of antibiotic discovery has slowed significantly. A release from UW-Madison shows that for years, soil has been sifted and studied for sources of antibiotics. But over time, researchers have been stymied by a lack of new findings.

“The common sentiment is that the well is dry,” Andes said. “We are working to change that.”

Andes says the current rediscovery rate — finding the same antibiotics over and over — is 99.5 percent. That’s a big change from the 1980s, when pharmaceutical companies were seeking FDA approval for as many as 20 antibiotics every year.

“We want to get back to the ’heyday’ of antibiotic discovery,” he said.

To that end, UW-Madison researchers have collected microbes from more than 10,000 different insects across North and South America. One promising candidate, called cyphomycin, was harvested from a Brazilian ant that survives by farming fungal growths.

In early tests, researchers found cyphomycin was effective against certain fungal infections in mice without much toxicity.

“We feel clinical trials are coming soon,” Andes said. “In our world, this is happening fast, but although it is still likely years away, we are making great progress.”