The term ‘antibiotic’ was introduced by Selman Waksman as any small molecule, produced by a microbe, with antagonistic properties on the growth of other microbes. An antibiotic interferes with bacterial survival via a specific mode of action but more importantly, at therapeutic concentrations, it is sufficiently potent to be effective against infection and simultaneously presents minimal toxicity. Infectious diseases have been a challenge throughout the ages. From 1347 to 1350, approximately one-third of Europe’s population perished to Bubonic plague. Advances in sanitary and hygienic conditions sufficed to control further plague outbreaks. However, these persisted as a recurrent public health issue. Likewise, infectious diseases in general remained the leading cause of death up to the early 1900s. The mortality rate shrunk after the commercialization of antibiotics, which given their impact on the fate of mankind, were regarded as a ‘medical miracle’. Moreover, the non-therapeutic application of antibiotics has also greatly affected humanity, for instance those used as livestock growth promoters to increase food production after World War II.
Currently, more than 2 million North Americans acquire infections associated with antibiotic resistance every year, resulting in 23,000 deaths. In Europe, nearly 700 thousand cases of antibiotic-resistant infections directly develop into over 33,000 deaths yearly, with an estimated cost over €1.5 billion. Despite a 36% increase in human use of antibiotics from 2000 to 2010, approximately 20% of deaths worldwide are related to infectious diseases today. Future perspectives are no brighter, for instance, a government commissioned study in the United Kingdom estimated 10 million deaths per year from antibiotic resistant infections by 2050.
The increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, alongside the alarmingly low rate of newly approved antibiotics for clinical usage, we are on the verge of not having effective treatments for many common infectious diseases. Historically, antibiotic discovery has been crucial in outpacing resistance and success is closely related to systematic procedures – platforms – that have catalyzed the antibiotic golden age, namely the Waksman platform, followed by the platforms of semi-synthesis and fully synthetic antibiotics. Said platforms resulted in the major antibiotic classes: aminoglycosides, amphenicols, ansamycins, beta-lactams, lipopeptides, diaminopyrimidines, fosfomycins, imidazoles, macrolides, oxazolidinones, streptogramins, polymyxins, sulphonamides, glycopeptides, quinolones and tetracyclines.
The increase in drug-resistant pathogens is a consequence of multiple factors, including but not limited to high rates of antimicrobial prescriptions, antibiotic mismanagement in the form of self-medication or interruption of therapy, and large-scale antibiotic use as growth promotors in livestock farming. For example, 60% of the antibiotics sold to the USA food industry are also used as therapeutics in humans. To further complicate matters, it is estimated that $200 million is required for a molecule to reach commercialization, with the risk of antimicrobial resistance rapidly developing, crippling its clinical application, or on the opposing end, a new antibiotic might be so effective it is only used as a last resort therapeutic, thus not widely commercialized.
Besides a more efficient management of antibiotic use, there is a pressing need for new platforms capable of consistently and efficiently delivering new lead substances, which should attend their precursors impressively low rates of success, in today’s increasing drug resistance scenario. Antibiotic Discovery Platforms are aiming to screen large libraries, for instance the reservoir of untapped natural products, which is likely the next antibiotic ‘gold mine’. There is a void between phenotanypic screening (high-throughput) and omics-centered assays (high-information), where some mechanistic and molecular information complements antimicrobial activity, without the laborious and extensive application of various omics assays. The increasing need for antibiotics drives the relentless and continuous research on the foreground of antibiotic discovery. This is likely to expand our knowledge on the biological events underlying infectious diseases and, hopefully, result in better therapeutics that can swing the war on infectious diseases back in our favor.
During the genomics era came the target-based platform, mostly considered a failure due to limitations in translating drugs to the clinic. Therefore, cell-based platforms were re-instituted, and are still of the utmost importance in the fight against infectious diseases. Although the antibiotic pipeline is still lackluster, especially of new classes and novel mechanisms of action, in the post-genomic era, there is an increasingly large set of information available on microbial metabolism. The translation of such knowledge into novel platforms will hopefully result in the discovery of new and better therapeutics, which can sway the war on infectious diseases back in our favor.