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As superbugs gain ground, antibiotic development slows to a crawl

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Antibiotic resistance is rapidly becoming a critical public health risk, with a growing number of bacteria developing resistance to a wide swath of drugs. Despite the threat posed by these so-called "superbugs," however, a new report warns that the number of antibiotics being created to thwart them is far too low.

The report, authored by members of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), describes the pipeline of new antibiotics as "on life support." Most notably, it notes that only seven new drugs are currently in advanced stages of testing as potential treatments for a particularly nasty class of bacteria: multidrug-resistant gram-negative superbugs. These bacteria include E.coli, Salmonella, and CRE, the latter of which was recently described as a "nightmare bacteria" by CDC director Thomas Friedman, M.D., because it can resist even the strongest antibiotics.

"We're on the precipice of returning to the dark days."

"We're on the precipice of returning to the dark days before antibiotics enabled safer surgery, chemotherapy, and the care of premature infants," said Helen Boucher, M.D., lead author of the report. "We're all at risk."

Pharmaceutical companies aren't investing enough money into the development of new antibiotics, the report noted. That's largely because such drugs, which are taken for a few days or weeks, aren't as profitable as those designed to treat chronic conditions over periods of years. The IDSA wants to see financial incentives that'll coax drug companies back into antibiotic development: only four major pharmaceutical companies still invest in antibiotic research and development, and one of those, AstraZeneca, recently announced plans to reduce its involvement.