While the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria continues to grow, an effort spearheaded by UW-Madison Professor Jo Handelsman is sourcing potential candidates for new antibiotics from all over the world. Through the Tiny Earth project—which Handelsman created while teaching at Yale University in 2012—thousands of undergraduate college students have been collecting soil samples and isolating bacteria that produce antibiotic chemicals. More than 10,000 students participate each year by taking the Tiny Earth class at academic institutions that offer the program.
The network now has active programs in 25 countries and more are popping up each year, Handelsman said yesterday during a webinar hosted by the Madison Rotary Club.
“Our goal with this project overall is to make antibiotic discovery cheaper and more efficient for the pharmaceutical companies,” she said. “They’ve told us repeatedly from the 1980s on that the discovery process is the expensive and difficult part they don’t want to engage in.”
During the webinar, she explained that most major pharmaceutical companies don’t put many resources into finding new antibiotics, since they’re not as lucrative as other drugs taken for chronic conditions. By creating a pipeline for new antibiotic drug candidates and handing them off to companies for development, regulatory approval and clinical trials, “perhaps that would reduce the cost and challenge associated with antibiotic discovery.”
She explained she was inspired to create the project by her desire to boost STEM education as well as the rising threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. The industry hasn’t been turning out many new antibiotics in decades, and doctors are discouraged from prescribing the typically more expensive new drugs for cost reasons.
At the same time, bacterial infections are on the rise, and the World Health Organization has been tracking increasing death tolls from these infections. According to Handelsman, the WHO predicts bacterial infections will become the world’s leading cause of death by 2050 “unless we dramatically change our discovery process” for new antibiotics.
Last year alone, 36,000 people in the United States were killed by antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, and that number has been climbing for years.
“Before the 1940s — that was when antibiotics were first commercialized, during World War Two — bacterial infections caused a third of the deaths in the United States,” Handelsman said. “We’re under threat of going back to that condition in the next decades because of the resistance problem.”
Watch the full webinar here: http://bit.ly/2TN57GF
See more on the Tiny Earth project: http://tinyearth.wisc.edu/