The Teixobactin Project
Though new antibiotics are urgently needed, not enough research is conducted in this field. Given that an antibiotic is usually taken for a few weeks to cure an infection, while other types of medication (e.g. for hypertension) are taken for a lifetime, the amount of drugs a company can sell for chronic conditions is higher, and thus curative therapies are of less financial interest.
Nonetheless, an exciting discovery was presented in early 2015 – teixobactin. A compound produced by a bacteria species to fend off rival microbes, it has shown promising results against gram-positive strains, notably including MRSA and tuberculosis. It has attracted attention in journals (notably Nature), popular science magazines such as NewScientist, and the general press.
Drug-resistant tuberculosis is one of the main diseases UAEM is interested in. Recognising the potential of this drug, UAEM encourages Global Access Licensing to be implemented for teixobactin. Martin Thomson of the newsletter team spoke with Thilo von Groote from Münster, who coordinates UAEM's teixobactin project in Germany.
1. Could you tell us something about the early stages of UAEM's teixobactin project? How did you find out about teixobactin, what made you decide it was a worthy cause to commit to, how did UAEM become involved?
Andreas Kasper from Leipzig read an article about teixobactin in a public newspaper during 2015's German conference. On the very next day, we organised a workshop to look up more information on the topic and were impressed by the medicine's efficacy. While we found out a German public institute was involved in teixobactin research, public funds and the researchers involved in the project were very hard to uncover. We found out that a new company – NovoBiotics – had been created and was now holding a patent for teixobactin. This is called a spin-off company and is a problem for us, since creating a spin-off means that the patent is no longer held by the university, so GAL guidelines can be evaded.
German and North American UAEM members wrote a letter to Dr. Schneider, who was the German project leader. Following some discussion, she was supportive of UAEM's endeavour to implement GAL for teixobactin and forwarded the letter to the American leader Prof. Lewis. He didn't answer immediately, and in the meantime, Brooke Baker of Boston University's law department also expressed interest in UAEM's campaign. There will soon be a meeting with Profs. Lewis and Baker and UAEM at Boston University. Keaton Andreas, the Campus & Campaign Organizer of UAEM North America, organised this meeting and is my American partner in this project.
Lewis is, of course, completely in charge of the decision regarding GAL and has a financial interest in NovoBiotics' profits. Our arguments, which are primarily moral, may look weak against that. However, we can also point out that his public image would benefit from making an ethical decision here. It's not just about GAL either – MRSA and tuberculosis are both diseases teixobactin could combat, but only the former is a huge problem in the Western world as a main nosocomial infection.
Tuberculosis medication is less profitable, but very important for poorer countries, so again it's ethically important that teixobactin is used against it, but that's possibly not pragmatic for NovoBiotics.
2. While teixobactin looks promising, it also seems like it won't see clinical use for some time to come. Could you name some advantages and disadvantages of UAEM becoming involved in such an early stage of medicine development? Is early involvement something we should aim to repeat with other compounds in the future?
Teixobactin is still at a university level rather than drug development by pharamaceutical companies. It's been very interesting to discover the motivations of researchers involved in the project. We had little knowledge about university level research, so learning about that has been a great benefit. Specifically, our expertise on spin-offs has grown.
However this ends, it's going to be good for UAEM. I mean, either GAL is implemented, which is great for obvious reasons, or Prof. Lewis refuses, which allows us to use this case as an example to convince universities while GAL for spin-offs is necessary. They're in a very interesting zone between public and private research. The only way it would be bad for UAEM is if some compromise is reached that neither allows teixobactin's use as a positive role-model or as a negative example.
3. How do you see teixobactin R&D taking place in the future?
NovoBiotics is a small company. As such, it probably doesn't have the capacities to complete all stages of drug development and production itself. The stage 1 and 2a trials were done by NovoBiotics and went well. 2b could still take place under NovoBiotics, but I expect them to sell the patent to a larger company for stage 3 testing. If the compound's potential is proven by stages 1 to 2b, it's a lower risk investment for the buying company, so NovoBiotics would have more leverage and can get a better price if stage 2b is already taken care of before the sale.
(Editor's note: stage 1 means animal testing, stage 2a testing on healthy humans to check for risky side-effects, stage 2b is first testing on sick humans and stage 3 is large-scale testing on sick humans)
You can't really judge professors for selling their products to pharmaceuticals because it's the only practical way. None the less, with spin-offs being in a grey area between public and private research, they need to keep public interests in mind, which to us means that they only sell the patent if GAL and development of tuberculosis drugs is guaranteed by the buying company.
4. An interesting aspect of teixobactin is that iChip (the method used to culture the teixobactin-producing bacteria) is also novel and recently patented. Given that a method could, in theory, result in the discovery of multiple medicines, do you think UAEM should pay more attention to new methods used in research? I feel we are currently very focused on the medicines themselves, but if the methods used to create these medicines are also being patented, could we take action on that level more frequently?
We did consider focusing on iChip as the main aspect of our project. Since it's a method for cultivating different bacteria species, it could produce many useful compounds, not just teixobactin, and has done so in the past. However, while teixobactin is a novel development, iChip is actually 18 years old and so is its patent. If we're not mistaken, iChip's patent will expire in 2 years. So it simply wasn't sensible to choose iChip as our focus. If we discovered a method more early in its patent's lifespan, we could act differently.
5. How would one get involved in the teixobactin project? What kind of tasks could people interested in joining expect to carry out?
It's hard to say what degree of help we need right now. I would encourage people interested in the project to contact us after our meeting with Prof. Lewis, so we can more accurately plan what our course of action will be, and how many people we'll need. (Editor's note: we'll report on the outcome of the meeting in the newsletter once it's been held.)
We're optimistic with regards to the meeting, and very happy with the way our cooperation with UAEM North America and Prof. Lewis has went so far. This degree of cooperation between Europe and North America – it's been practically 50/50, with Germany doing more in the early stages of the project and America doing more now – is unusual and very positive.
Northeastern University in Boston doesn't have a chapter yet, and founding one could be very helpful for the teixobactin project.