Penicillin was arguably the top medical breakthrough of the last century. But within a decade of its introduction in 1943, the bugs it once killed began developing resistance, a scenario that has repeated itself with each new antibiotic. Now, against some infections, we're down to our last effective antibiotic—vancomycin.
Part of the reason we're in this jam is that pharmaceutical companies cut back on developing new antibiotics because of slim profit margins. But smaller biotechnology companies have stepped in to fill the void: They're responsible for a handful of new drugs at different stages in the approval process, such as daptomycin, which is already approved for drug-resistant bacterial skin and blood infections.
Of course, big pharmaceutical companies still have a couple of tricks up their sleeves. One is ceftobiprole: In tests at Rockefeller University in New York City, it was very effective against MRSA, one of the scariest of the superbugs. The antibiotic is under review by the FDA.
Another newcomer, tigecycline, is the first in a new class of antibiotic, which means bacteria have yet to develop resistance. Doctors can use it without having to identify the specific strain, saving valuable time in the treatment of aggressive infections.
"Antibiotics are major tools for public health," says Octavio Ramilo, MD, an infectious disease specialist. "We need more incentives for development to discover new products that can fight these deadly infections."