As new illnesses and bacteria continue to develop, so should the antibiotics to beat them. Yet big pharmaceutical companies often leave the research to universities, and they don’t always keep pace with the rate of illness.
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The U is out to fix that. Ryan Looper, academic director of the CORE program, a chemistry group on campus, said employees at the U’s Synthetic and Medicinal Chemistry Core are creating antibiotics to fight against infections from diseases, such as diabetic foot ulcers, bed sores and infected medical implants.
Looper is part of a research team at the U studying biofilms, which protect bacteria from antibiotics and increase the resistance to drugs. Now that their drug has proven effective in the lab, they hope to take their findings to the clinic and one day to the pharmaceutical market.
“One of the reasons we are interested in antibiotics is that [large pharmaceutical companies have] essentially stopped researching,” Looper said. “It’s left to the academic community to do the research to develop new antibiotics, and this is at a time that it is incredibly critical to develop new antibiotics.”
Looper and Paul Sebahar, director of CORE, believe that all of this comes down to one thing: money.
“Drug discovery is a very expensive process,” Sebahar said. “There’s enough arsenal of antibiotic compounds that doctors are able to manage most infections. However, there is a relatively small number of cases that aren’t treatable by current therapies … They would spend a lot of money to treat not a lot of patients.”
Yet by developing a new drug, this research group could help treat many people. That is part of the reason Travis J. Haussener, a graduate student in organic chemistry and member of the research team, is working on the project.
“As far as treating a human is concerned, in the whole grand scheme of things, we’re somewhere closer to the start than closer to the end,” Haussener said. “But we want to make a difference in the world. That’s why we’re in this place.”
The idea for the research stemmed from Dustin Williams, a research assistant professor for Orthopaedic Surgery Operations. He began to study the biomaterials on implants and saw that most traditional antibiotics were limited in their ability to treat certain infections. The compounds Looper, Sebahar and Haussener create in the labs kill bacteria in different ways by destroying the biofilm and dispersing the bacteria.
“Our goal is to address the current global threat going on and develop some antibiotics to fight it,” Williams said.
The Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative has helped fund the research, and Curza, a drug development company, has partnered with them to get the research even closer to the market. The next step is to get approval and funding to bring the drug off campus and prove that it is safe to use on humans, which Looper said is something the team is looking forward to. He also sees drug discoveries expanding at the U.
“There is a growing community of researchers that are
dedicated to drug development,” Looper said. “And lots of interest from students on treating infectious diseases.”
If the U can get a successful drug out to the public, the university would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other academic institutions, such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Looper is hopeful the U can be one of those leading the pack.
“There are only a handful of examples of universities that have taken a drug to the market successfully,” he said.