WASHINGTON—The Pew Charitable Trusts announced today that Merck & Co. Inc. (known as MSD outside the U.S. and Canada) and Kyorin Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. (Japan) have shared antibiotic research data on Pew’s open-access Shared Platform for Antibiotic Research and Knowledge (SPARK). The contribution builds on data previously shared with SPARK from a range of research programs—including those at academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, and other pharmaceutical companies—further expanding the free, interactive resource, which scientists around the world are using to pursue antibiotic research.
The preclinical data provided by Merck comes from a discontinued joint research program between the company and Kyorin. The program investigated a potentially novel way to attack bacteria, by targeting two types of enzymes: DNA gyrase and topoisomerase IV. SPARK focuses on data related to Gram-negative bacteria, which are known to produce some of the most dangerous and hardest-to-treat superbug infections.
“Every 15 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies of an antibiotic-resistant infection; that’s more than 35,000 deaths each year. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the number of these infections in the U.S. is going up,” said Kathy Talkington, director of Pew’s antibiotic resistance project. “As we face the COVID-19 pandemic—with millions of patients vulnerable to secondary infections due to weakened immune systems—the need for new antibiotics that can treat multidrug-resistant Gram-negative bacterial infections has never been greater. Our hope is that the data from Merck’s research will help catalyze discovery of new antibiotics for Gram-negative pathogens.”
Pew launched SPARK in September 2018 to help spur basic research into the scientific barriers that can prevent the discovery of new types of antibiotics. The platform is part of Pew’s ongoing work to advance the goals set forth in its Scientific Roadmap for Antibiotic Discovery, bringing together chemical and biological data from published studies and previously unpublished work, such as the Merck and Kyorin data, on a user-friendly, cloud-based platform. Open to researchers from all sectors—industry, academia, government, and nonprofit—SPARK enables scientists to share information, learn from past research, and generate new insights.
“At Merck, we are committed to the discovery and development of novel infectious disease products, and we recognize that effective collaboration is crucial to the discovery of breakthrough medicines and vaccines,” said Todd Black, executive director of Biology and Discovery, Merck Research Laboratories. “By sharing these data via the SPARK interactive tool, we are hopeful that scientists across the world are able to advance their own antibiotics discovery programs. We continue to focus our efforts on the research labs’ novel lead compounds that show promise against difficult-to-treat bacteria.”
Novel drugs—those with new molecular structures that operate differently from existing antibiotics—are needed to overcome resistance in Gram-negative bacteria, yet there are far too few such products in development. Pew’s most recent analysis shows that fewer than 1 in 4 antibiotics currently in development are the kind of novel drugs needed, and none of these clinical candidates has even the potential to treat the most concerning Gram-negative pathogens.
“Since April of 2019, two antibiotic companies have gone bankrupt—and there are very few antibiotics in clinical development,” said Talkington. “The exodus from antibiotic discovery and development is real, and the implications are grave.”
“It is absolutely essential that we salvage all the data we can from these research efforts and make them available through open-access platforms like SPARK so that the learnings are not lost and precious time is not wasted reinventing the wheel,” added Cheryl Quinn, an independent consultant with more than 20 years of experience in antibacterial discovery, and one of the experts who works with Pew to continually optimize SPARK. “It’s also important to note that the few companies still pursuing antibiotic development—like Merck—have valuable information that they can and should contribute, too.”
“Merck and Kyorin should be applauded for sharing their data,” said Quinn, “and it’s my fervent hope that this contribution will encourage more companies and research programs to do the same. Every bit of data helps as our dangerously dwindling but passionate community continues to build and use SPARK in the search for urgently needed new antibiotics.”