Elon Musk’s SpaceX is planning on sending up a sample of MRSA to the International Space Station (ISS) on its next flight on the 14th of February. MRSA is a prevalent type of staph bacteria. Around 1 in 3 people carry harmless staph bacteria and 1 in 30 are colonized by the MRSA strain. Although largely harmless, the bacteria is becoming increasingly resistant to almost all antibiotics that are currently available, and is becoming more lethal. Backed by NASA and the Centre for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the experiment aims to study the impact of near zero-gravity on gene expression and mutation patterns. The theory is that the environmental conditions on the ISS will result in accelerated mutation rates of MRSA, allowing essentially to predict what will happen back on Earth, allowing scientists to intervene and understand how to prevent infection.
A woman recently died in January 2017 after being killed by a superbug that she contracted whilst on holiday to India. Her treatment in the USA proved ineffective; the bacteria strain was resistant to every currently available antibiotic in the United States. Although this is an extremely rare case, scientists globally are concerned that they will become more widespread. There has been no new antibiotic created for over 25 years and current estimates suggest that by 2050 deaths due to antibiotic resistant microbes will be 10 million a year and cost the global economy up to $100 trillion.
There is new research making inroads into overcoming this bacterial resistance. Drugs have been developed that change the way they attack the bacteria, effectively tearing holes into the microbes or altering their enzyme structure so they are no longer resistant. A UK-USA partnership has been set up to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle the antibiotic resistance, while the US Department of Health and Human Services aims to invest around $300 million over the course of five years.
On the flip side, there is not much being done by the big pharmaceutical companies. The world market for antibiotic drugs is around $40 billion a year but only 12% of it was spent on patenting new, high-cost drugs. From 2003 to 2013 only 4.7% of venture capital in pharmaceutical R&D went towards antibiotic resistance. This gap is further amplified by the lack of development, in 2014 there were 800 new, forthcoming cancer drugs, in comparison there was only 50 new antibiotics.
There is a lack of incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to produce new antibiotics. The companies cannot try to maximise their revenue through maximising sales as the usage of the drug requires moderation to inhibit the bacteria’s development to resisting it. Jim O’Neill, current chair of UK Antimicrobial Resistance Commission suggests that companies that develop new antibiotics should receive award of up to $1 billion, allowing them to offset the costs incurred from R&D. The award would be funded by an investment charge on the pharmaceutical industry, those who are actively pursuing antibiotic R&D do not have to pay the charge. By removing the relationship between profit and sales volume, more companies would be encouraged to research antibiotics.
The rise of resistance bacteria could soon become the world’s biggest threat and global pharmaceutical companies need some form of incentive to tackle this issue. Although some progress is being made, exponential increase is required to truly combat it.