“That I Don’t Know”: The Uncertain Futures of Our Bodies in America

By Wendy S. Salkin

I. Our Bodies, Our Body Politic

On March 30, at a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, an audience member asked then-presidential-hopeful Donald J. Trump: “[W]hat is your stance on women’s rights and their right to choose in their own reproductive health?” What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth with Chris Matthews. Here is an excerpt from that event:

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman.
TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form.
MATTHEWS: Ten cents? Ten years? What?
TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know.

Much has been made of the fact that President-Elect Trump claimed that women who undergo abortion procedures should face “some sort of punishment.” Considerably less has been made of the fact that our President-Elect, in a moment of epistemic humility, expressed that he did not know what he would do, though he believed something had to be done. (He later revised his position, suggesting that the performer of the abortion rather than the woman undergoing the abortion would “be held legally responsible.”)

I am worried about the futures of our bodies, as, I think, are many. That a Trump Presidency makes many feel fear is not a novel contribution. Nor will I be able to speak to the very many, and varied, ways our bodies may be compromised in and by The New America—be it through removal from the country (see especially the proposed “End Illegal Immigration Act”), removal from society (see especially the proposed “Restoring Community Safety Act”), or some other means (see especially the proposed “Repeal and Replace Obamacare Act”).

But, I am like President-Elect Trump in this way: Like him, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what to say about what will happen to our bodies or to our body politic. So instead, today, I will take this opportunity to point to one aspect of the changing face of access to reproductive technologies that has already become a battleground in the fight over women’s bodies and will, I suspect, take center stage in the debate over the right and the ability to choose in coming years. Continue reading

Standards, Data Exchange and Intellectual Property Rights in Systems Biology

I am happy to announce that our recent paper on “Standards, Data Exchange and Intellectual Property Rights in Systems Biology” has been accepted for publication in the Biotechnology Journal.  The paper was co-authored by Esther Van Zimmeren from the University of Antwerp, Berthold Rutz from the European Patent Office and me. Please find a summary below:

Intellectual property rights (IPRs) represent a key concern for researchers and industry in basically all high-tech sectors. IPRs regularly figure prominently in scientific journals and at scientific conferences and lead to dedicated workshops to increase the awareness and “IPR savviness” of scientists. In 2015, Biotechnology Journal published a report from an expert meeting on “Synthetic Biology & Intellectual Property Rights” organized by the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation sponsored by the European Research Area Network (ERA-Net) in Synthetic Biology (ERASynBio), in which we provided a number of recommendations for a variety of stakeholders. The current article offers some deeper reflections about the interface between IPRs, standards and data exchange in Systems Biology resulting from an Expert Meeting funded by another ERA-Net, ERASysAPP. The meeting brought together experts and stakeholders (e.g. scientists, company representatives, officials from public funding organizations) in systems biology (SysBio) from different countries.  Despite the different profiles of the stakeholders at the meeting and the variety of interests, many concerns and opinions were shared. In case particular views were expressed by a specific type of stakeholder, this will be explicitly mentioned in the text. This article reflects on a number of particularly relevant issues that were discussed at the meeting and offers some recommendations. Continue reading

Biosimilars – In The Pipeline or Still a Pipe Dream?

By Jonathan Larsen, JD, MPP and Adrienne R. Ghorashi, Esq.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first biosimilar for use in the United States in March 2015. The approval came after several years of regulatory process development authorized by the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation (BPCI) Act of 2009, a component of the Affordable Care Act.

Biosimilars are highly similar, but not identical, copies of FDA-approved biologics, known as “reference” products. Biologics are used to treat a variety of diseases and medical conditions, including cancer. For many years, biosimilar development was thought to be too complex and too costly to advance, and exclusivity patents for reference biologics prohibited developers from marketing competing biosimilars. Now that those patents have started to expire, biosimilar development can finally begin, at a potentially huge benefit to patients.

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Amicus brief in Sequenom v. Ariosa: Why the U.S. Supreme Court should grant the petition for a writ of certiorari

I am happy to announce that on April 20th the New York attorney Robert M. Schwartz and I have filed an amicus brief at the US Supreme Court with Berkeley-based Andrew J. Dhuey as Counsel of Record. The brief, which was signed by 10 prominent  European and Australian Law Professors as amici curiae, adds a European perspective to the many amicus briefs that have been submitted in support of Sequenom’s petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. Sequenom’s petition in Case No. 15-1182 was filed on March 21, 2016 and seeks review of the Federal Circuit’s controversial decision in Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., 788 F.3d 1371, reh’g denied, 809 F.3d 1282 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The case concerns the revocation of Sequenom’s patent claims directed to inventive methods of genetic testing by detecting and amplifying paternally inherited fetal cell-free DNA (cffDNA) from maternal blood and plasma. Before the development of this highly beneficial, non-invasive prenatal diagnostic test, patients were placed at higher risk and maternal plasma was routinely discarded as waste. Distinguishing this case from previous Supreme Court decisions and highlighting the mitigating effects of other patentability requirements, we are concerned that the Federal Circuit’s overly rigid approach to claims eligibility decision might jeopardize the development of new therapies in an increasingly important area of modern medicine.

As most Bill of Health readers know, the US Supreme Court has in a recent series of cases (i.e. the combined effect of Bilski, Prometheus, Myriad and Alice) barred the patent eligibility for many genetic inventions as “products and processes of nature”. In Sequenom the CAFC interpreted these to mean – in essence- that “laws of nature” had to be entirely eliminated from the test of patent eligibility under §101 of the Patent laws. Should this interpretation be institutionalized it will contravene the tests for exclusions and exceptions under the EPC, arguably contradict longstanding US treaty policy and disrupt international patent harmonization. More importantly, we fear that the broader impact of such an restrictive interpretation may have grave consequences for a sustainable global drug delivery system, which should involve both public and private actors.

Although we believe that patents will remain the backbone of the industry, we acknowledge in our brief that  there are certain areas of biomedical innovations, such as antibiotics and orphan drugs, where the patent system does not work particularly well. We further recognize that both in Europe and in the US concerns have been raised about overly pre-emptive patents scope, but these are addressed at different levels. In contrast to Europe, the CAFC has interpreted the uncodified exception as part of a “threshold test” for patent-eligibility applied before other patentability requirements can be assessed. A strict and coherent application of these requirements, however, would invalidate overly-broad patent claims (including some of Sequenom’s arguably too broad and badly drafted claims), while also permitting, well-defined, narrower claims on diagnostic technology. In our view, the current approach conflates the patent eligibility test with issues that can be more sensibly addressed within a strict and coherent assessment of novelty, non-obviousness and sufficient disclosure criteria or at the post-grant level. We believe that, the Federal Circuit’s threshold test has not sufficiently considered the manner in which today’s statutory requirements have developed in both the U.S. and Europe to address policy rationales for patentability exceptions. To entirely transplant those issues into the patent eligibility assessment would categorically close the patentability door on many well-defined and beneficial inventions that deserve patent protection. In absence of sufficient public involvement and appropriate alternative incentives we risk that the wells driving technological progress run dry and that companies engage in business strategies, such as increased reliance on trade secrecy, that are not necessarily beneficial for our innovation system.

Accordingly, we urge the Supreme Court to clarify a patent eligibility test in line with its longstanding jurisprudence and in harmony with international and European law.

If the CAFC’s restrictive interpretation should prevail, however, I believe that it will be crucial to swiftly optimize the framework for PPPs and alternative innovation incentives, such as prizes and regulatory exclusivities. This would have to be done on an international level to allow for greater flexibilities and encompass further technological areas, such as biomedical diagnostics. Regarding regulatory exclusivities, Article 39 of the TRIPS agreement should provide sufficient leeway for such changes. The pros and cons of the different alternative approaches would of course have to be carefully considered.

The Amici curiae have no stake in the parties or in the outcome of the case. A full list of the Amici is appended at the end of the brief.

 

What do doctors know about FDA drug approval standards and the breakthrough therapy designation? Less than we’d hope.

By Dalia Deak

A study published this week in JAMA examined how much physicians know about FDA approval standards for new drugs and the breakthrough therapy designation. The investigators found major gaps in understanding with regard to both issues, despite intuitive beliefs to the contrary.

For the study, Kesselheim et al. conducted a national survey of board-certified internists and specialists. They selected a random sample of 300 clinically active internists and 900 specialists in endocrinology, hematology, and infectious diseases from the American Board of Internal Medicine’s diplomate list. Of the 1,148 physicians contacted, 692 physicians, or 60%, responded.

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Treasury Targets Corporate Inversion, Pfizer-Allergan Deal Falls Through

By Dalia Deak

The Treasury Department published regulations on Monday that took aim at corporate inversions – and, they hit their mark. Two days later, the merger of pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Allergan, the largest planned inversion in history of the pharmaceutical industry, fell through.

The temporary and proposed regulations put forth on Monday make it more difficult for U.S.-parented multinational groups to change their tax residence to a low-tax country. This practice, the Treasury noted, is typically not to grow the underlying business or pursue other commercial benefits that may arise, but primarily to reduce their taxes. Companies will often follow up corporate inversions with another tactic—earnings stripping. This is where the company will seek to further minimize U.S. taxes by paying deductible interest to the new foreign parent or its affiliates in the low-tax country.

Specifically, the regulations attempt to curb inversions and earnings stripping by doing the following:

  • Limiting inversions by disregarding foreign parent stock attributable to certain prior inversions or acquisitions of US companies (under section 7874);
  • Targeting transactions that increase related-party debt that does not finance new investment in the US (under section 385); and
  • Allowing the IRS on audit to divide a purported debt instrument into part debt and part stock (under section 385).

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Sequenom vs. Ariosa and international approaches to the patent eligibility of biomedical innovation

With a potential petition for writ of certiorari in the Sequenom v. Ariosa case approaching, it appears as if the US Supreme Court  will once again have to consider crucial patent eligibility questions with a great significance for biomedical innovation and diagnostic methods.

The claims at issue (see U.S. Patent No. 6,258,540 ) are directed to methods of genetic testing by detecting and amplifying paternally inherited fetal cell-free DNA (cffDNA) from maternal blood and plasma. Before the development of this non-invasive prenatal diagnostic test, patients were placed at much higher risk and maternal plasma was routinely discarded as waste.

In an earlier decision the district court ruled that the method claims were patent ineligible and an – apparently reluctant  – Federal Circuit agreed in Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc. 788 F.3d 1377 (Fed Cir. 2015). Judge Linn, for example, wrote that the innovation deserves patent protection, but also that the “sweeping language of the test” established in Mayo v. Prometheus requires a determination that the claims are patent ineligible. Continue reading

Jacobus and Catalyst Continue to Race for Approval of LEMS Drug

By Dalia Deak

The latest development in the race for approval between Jacobus Pharmaceutical Company and Catalyst Pharmaceuticals is a ‘refuse to file’ letter that the FDA issued to Catalyst indicating that Catalyst’s New Drug Application for Firdapse was incomplete. Both companies are competing for approval of slightly modified forms of a drug—3,4-diaminopyridine, or 3,4-DAP— to treat Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LEMS). The winner will receive 7 years of exclusive marketing rights to the drug.

LEMS is an autoimmune disorder that affects an estimated 3,000 people in the United States. It is a rare, debilitating disorder that is marked by progressive weakening of the muscles that often begins in young adulthood. The drug in question was initially discovered in the 1970s in Scotland, with researchers in Sweden demonstrating its use in LEMS patients in the 1980s. Jacobus Pharmaceutical Company has been providing a free base form of the drug to patients with a LEMS diagnosis since the early 1990s at no cost (with the exception of postage), though the drug had never received FDA approval.

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Peeling the Onion: How to Promote Pharmaceutical Innovation and Access to Medicine

As mentioned in my earlier blog post, I decided to conclude this year by publishing a introductory speech that I gave on April 14th, 2015 at the 2015 Broad Institute Innovation & Intellectual Property Symposium. The speech was part of the session “Bringing Therapies to the Patients” and introduced a panel-discussion with Entrepreneur and Professors of Law and Business about the failures of the patent system to support new therapeutics. The text is below:

Peeling the Onion:
How to Promote Pharmaceutical Innovation and Access to Medicine

Speaking about frustrations over the IP system in pharmaceutical innovation, sometimes feels like – to lend the words of the late German Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass – “peeling an onion:” Continue reading

Happy New Year: From “Weltschmerz” to Pharmaceutical Innovation

Gallery

Dear readers and colleagues, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy, healthy and peaceful year 2016. Reaching the end of 2015, I cannot stop thinking about the year that has passed. Being a native German, … Continue reading

A Conversation about… Tax Rates?: The Pfizer and Allergan Deal

By Dalia Deak

Last week, Pfizer and Allergan announced a $155B merger that has the health care and policy world talking. The contours of the deal—in particular, where the new company will be based and the implications it has for the company’s tax rate— have raised important questions.

Pfizer is a company with a long history in the United States that dates back to the mid-1800s when it sold antiparisitics and then painkillers during the Civil War. In the modern era, Pfizer is perhaps best known for blockbusters drugs like Viagra and Lipitor. Yet, expiring exclusivities and patent protections have threatened to knock the drugmaker from its No.1 spot. In January of this year, revenues were higher than expected but still down 3% year-over-year, with a forecasted decline in sales from $49.6B in 2014 to between $44.5B and $46.5B expected in 2015. Without blockbusters to replace Lipitor and Celebrex in particular (which fell 6% and 31% respectively), the company has been looking for a deal, even trying to push through a $118B acquisition of UK-based Astrazeneca in 2013, though that deal ultimately failed.

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A Cost Conundrum for Treating Small Patient Populations

By Dalia Deak

The issue of drug pricing has been thrust center stage (again) after Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per dose. The public issued a loud outcry, the pharmaceutical industry condemned the move, and presidential candidates are now discussing drug prices (as discussed previously on this blog). The reactions were so swift and loud that Turing eventually backed down, indicating that they will lower the drug’s price, though it is unclear by how much.

The drug in question in this debate, daraprim, is a 62-year old drug used to treat toxoplasmosis, a parasite that is particularly dangerous in infants, AIDS patients, and cancer patients. The curiosity of this case in particular is that the usual host of development incentives implicated in driving up the cost of a drug (e.g., patents, market exclusivity) was not in play. The reason Turing was able to raise the cost of daraprim is because no other generic competitor for the drug is on the market to drive down the cost. This is largely a result of the small market for daraprim, which had 13,000 prescriptions filled for it last year. This begs the questions: specifically for disease areas where populations are small, will drug prices, even for generics, remain stubbornly high?

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Bureaucracy Can Save Lives – The Legacy of Dr. Frances Kelsey

By Robert Field

What adjective would most people associate with the word “bureaucrat”? For many, it would be “inefficient,” “inept,” or “incompetent.” But another that is just as descriptive is “lifesaving.”

Dr. Frances Kelsey, who died this month at the age of 101, was celebrated as an American hero for her work as a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She saved thousands of lives and prevented untold suffering by using techniques that earn bureaucrats a bad name, delay and obstruction, to keep the drug thalidomide from reaching the market in the United States in 1961.

Thalidomide is a sedative that had been approved for sale in Europe four years earlier and was prescribed for morning sickness during pregnancy. The American manufacturer, Richardson-Merrell, saw a large potential market in the United States. However, Dr. Kelsey, who was assigned to review its application for marketing approval, was troubled by questionable safety data. The law in effect in 1961 required that she issue a decision within 60 days, but she was able to buy more time by asking for additional information.

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The Impact of Broccoli II and Tomato II on European patents in conventional breeding, GMO’s and Synthetic Biology: A grand finale of a juicy patents tale?

I am pleased to announce our recent paper entitled “The Impact of Broccoli II & Tomato II on European patents in conventional breeding, GMO’s and Synthetic Biology: The grand finale of a juicy patents tale?”, which is available on SSRN, and forthcoming in Biotechnology Law Report, Vol. 34, Number 3 (June 2015), pp. 1-18.

Our analysis deals with a seminal judgment on the controversial and sometimes even emotionally debated European “Broccoli” and “Tomato” patents, which has captivated the European patent and plant science communities for many years: On March 25, 2015, the EBA of the European Patent Office (EBA) finally issued its much awaited decisions on the consolidated referrals G2/12 (“Tomato II”) and G2/13 (“Broccoli II”), clarifying the exclusion from patentability of essentially biological processes, such as conventional crossing and selection, and in particular its impact on the patentability of claims for products resulting from such processes. The so-called “Tomato II” case concerned an invention entitled “method for breeding tomatoes having reduced water content and product of the method,” whereas the so-called “Broccoli II” case involved an invention of a “method for selective increase of the anticarcinogenic glucosinolates in brassica species”. Continue reading

New paper on cross-disciplinary collaboration

The nature of today’s most vital challenges and funding policies are driving more and more researchers towards interdisciplinary work. But what are the essential tools for those breaking the silos and leaving the comfort zones of their own disciplines?

Some advice on how to address the particular challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary research are described in our recent paper “Ten Simple Rules for a Successful Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration” published in the online open access journal PLOS Computational Biology last month. Please find below and abstract of the paper, which has inter alia been discussed and cited by Times Higher Education.

Abstract:

Cross-disciplinary collaborations have become an increasingly important part of science. They are seen as a key factor for finding solutions to pressing societal challenges on a global scale including green technologies, sustainable food production and drug development. This has also been realized by regulators and policy-makers, as it is reflected in the 80 billion Euro “Horizon 2020” EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. This programme puts special emphasis at breaking down barriers between fields to create a path breaking environment for knowledge, research and innovation.

However, igniting and successfully maintaining cross-disciplinary collaborations can be a delicate task. In this article we focus on the specific challenges associated with cross-disciplinary research in particular from the perspective of the theoretician. As research fellows of the 2020 Science project and collaboration partners, we bring broad experience of developing interdisciplinary collaborations [2–12]. We intend this guide for early career computational researchers as well as more senior scientists who are entering a cross disciplinary setting for the first time. We describe the key benefits, as well as some possible pitfalls, arising from collaborations between scientists with backgrounds in very different fields.

Proposed citation:

Knapp B, Bardenet R, Bernabeu MO, Bordas R, Bruna M, Minssen T, et al. (2015) Ten Simple Rules for a Successful Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1004214. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004214

Two new publications on “European patent strategies under the UPCA” and on “Synthetic Biology & Intellectual Property Rights”

I am pleased to announce two new publications on (1) “European patent strategies under the UPCA” and (2)  “Synthetic Biology & Intellectual Property Rights”:

1) Minssen, T & Lundqvist, B 2014, ‘The ”opt out” and “opt-in” provisions in the Unified Patent Court Agreement – Impact and strategies for European patent portfolios‘ , published  in N I R (Nordic IP Review), vol 2014, nr. 4, s. 340-357.

Abstract: Many questions concerning the UPC’s jurisdiction during the transitional period for European Patents under Article 83 UPCA remain unsolved. Focusing on the “opt in” and “opt out” choices under Article 83 (3) & (4), this paper discusses the legal nature and prerequisites of these provisions, as well as the options and strategic choices that patent proprietors and applicants are facing. Considering the pros and cons of the emerging unitary system in light of a persisting uncertainty of how to interpret relevant stipulations, it is emphasized that there will be no clear-cut solutions. Rather the suitability of each approach will have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all circumstances surrounding an invention, its patent-claims and the underlying business strategy. Recognizing that the worst thing to do is to do nothing at all, we conclude with a summary and some general remarks.

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The Revival of Phage Therapy to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) – Part III: What about patent protection and alternative incentives?

In Part II of this blog on legal issues relating to the revival of phage therapy I discussed the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Myriad and Prometheus, which might present major obstacles to the patentability of phage-related technology (a more detailed analysis of the Myriad and Prometheus decisions is available here).

Yet, all is not lost. As indicated in Part II, Myriad does not directly affect the patentability of synthetically modified biological compounds and Prometheus would still allow patents on inventive applications of natural processes and correlations that add new features to “natural laws”. Thus there still seems to be considerable leeway for patenting within the area of page therapy.

One example, mentioned in a recent Nature article, could be the skillful selection and precise combination of different phages in order to attack one specific type of bacteria. Such selections, however, would face a tough battle to overcome the “additional features that add significantly more” and “not identical” thresholds set by Prometheus and Myriad. Another example with even better prospects for patentability relates to genetically modified phages that are – due to human intervention – enabled to target only specific bacteria. This technology was recently presented by MIT researchers at the 2014 American Society for Microbiology Meeting. The researchers led by Timothy Lu had genetically engineered phages that use a DNA-editing system called CRISPR to target and kill only antibiotic-resistant bacteria while leaving other susceptible cells untouched. The significant engineering and alteration of natural products and processes involved in such inventions would most likely meet both the Myriad and Prometheus standards.

Yet, while the USPTO has recently issued new patent eligibility guidance and the CAFC has begun to directly apply Prometheus and Myriad to reject patent claims in biotech cases (e.g. In re Roslin), many questions remain unsolved. In particular, it is still not sufficiently clear exactly how much modification is required to render a molecule or method sufficiently distinct from naturally occurring product and processes. And even if the patent-eligibility threshold could be met in extraordinarily circumstances, the claimed invention would still have to fulfil other patentability requirements such as novelty, non-obviousness and the written description-requirements. The threshold for these requirements, however, have been heightened in recent years (see e.g. KSR v. Teleflex (2007) , Nautilus (2014) etc.). Considering that phage therapy is almost a century old with a substantial common general knowledge and a state of the art employing routine methods, these crucial requirements might still prevent the patentability of many useful applications.

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The Revival of Phage Therapy to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance – Part II: What about patent protection and alternative incentives?

Three days ago I commented on a couple of legal issues raised in the recent Nature report “Phage therapy gets revitalized”  by Sara Reardon. One challenge concerns the reluctance of pharma companies to broadly invest in the development of phage therapies. As pointed out in the report, this does of course very much (but not only) relate to the question of patentability. Various aspects might present obstacles to the patentability of technology relating to phage therapy. To not complicate the discussion and considering recent developments I decided to focus on some of aspects under US patent law.

Like in Europe, the first door to patentability that phage-related technology would need to pass concerns patent eligibility. In the last years the US Supreme Court has rendered an astonishing number of fundamental patent-decisions, including not less than four (!) landmark judgments on patent eligibility, i.e. Bilski v. Kappos (2010), Mayo v. Prometheus (2012) , AMP v. Myriad (2013)  and Alice v. CLS (2014). Most relevant in this context are the decisions in Prometheus and Myriad.

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The Revival of Phage Therapy to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance – Part I: What are the legal implications?

Last week I blogged about recent publications concerning the global battle against anti-microbial resistance (AMR). I did not mention a recent paper published in the June 2014 issue of Nature, which describes how European and U.S. researchers and authorities are increasingly considering clinical research in unconventional areas to fight AMR. The news-report “Phage therapy gets revitalized” by Sara Reardon concentrates on the use of viruses (bacteriophages) to battle bacteria. The idea is not new, but apart from some applications in the former Soviet Union, it never was established as a major research area elsewhere. In particular the paper examines the European Phagoburn project, which is the first large, multi-centre clinical trial of phage therapy for human infections, funded by the European Commission. It involves a phase I-II trial of using viruses for the treatment of bacterial infection following burns. The European Union (EU) is contributing €3.8 million (US$5.2 million) to the Phagoburn study demonstrating that it is taking the approach seriously. Meanwhile, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced in March 2014  that it regards phage therapy as one of seven key areas in its strategy to fight antibiotic resistance.

So far Western practice has concentrated on treating complex or unidentified infections with broad-spectrum antibiotics. These antibiotics would typically eliminate multiple types of bacteria, including those who have beneficial effects to the human organism. Despite resulting in direct negative consequences for patients, e.g. gastrointestinal disorders, these “atomic bomb” approaches can result in biological niches where resistant “bad bugs” can prosper. This is the reason why scientists are turning towards more targeted approaches. This is where phage therapy comes into play. Like “guided missiles”, phage-therapy has the ability to kill just species of bacteria or strain. Quoting the US virologist Ryland Young and the head of the scientific council at the Eliava Institute in Tblisi (Georgia), Mzia Kutateladze, the Nature report explains how nature offers an almost unlimited source of different phages and that so far no identical phages have ever been found. For this reason it is fairly simple to identify a particular phage for a bacterial target. If the bacterium should become resistant against that particular phage, researchers would modify the viral cocktails that are used for treatment by adding or substituting phages. At the Eliava Institute such updates occur – according to the report – approximately every 8 months and the scientists would not be fully aware of the precise combination of phages in the cocktail.

In light of these advantages the recent interest of US and EU stakeholders in phage therapy comes as no surprise. However, the scientific and legal challenges confronting these projects are complex. After all we are talking about viruses here, which triggers alarm bells with regard to public perception, safety concerns, and the regulation of relevant research. It also appears questionable if – or under what circumstances – regulatory authorities would be willing to grant market approval for such a rapidly changing product like in the case of e.g. influenza vaccines. Another significant problem for the development of new phage therapies, also addressed in the paper, lies in the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to invest into the field. The potential obstacles for more private involvement in phage therapy are many and range from considerable risks of failure, reputational damage, and unforeseeable side-effects to insufficient certainty with regard to intellectual property protection and guarantees of a profit.

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The Fight Against Antimicrobial Resistance: Important recent publications

One of my previous blogs discussed the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). I concluded that antimicrobial resistance is a growing and complex threat involving multifaceted legal, socio-economic and scientific aspects. This requires sustained and coordinated action on both global and local levels.

A recent medical review on drug resistant tuberculosis supports these findings and provides further fodder to the debate. In their study, which was published in April 2014 in The Lancet – Respiratory Medicine, the authors analyzed the epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, management, implications for health-care workers, and ethical and medico-legal aspects of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis and other resistant strains. In particular, the authors discussed the increasing threat of functionally untreatable tuberculosis, and the problems that it creates for public health and clinical practice. The paper concludes that the growth of highly resistant strains of tuberculosis make the development of new drugs and rapid diagnostics for tuberculosis—and increased funding to strengthen global control efforts, research, and advocacy—even more pressing.

This was also recognized in the recent WHO’s Global Surveillance Report on AMR, which was published this April. It is the first WHO report that studied the problem of AMR on a global level. Noting that resistance is occurring across many different infectious agents, the report concentrates on antibiotic resistance in seven different bacteria responsible for common, serious diseases such as bloodstream infections (sepsis), diarrhoea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and gonorrhoea. The results demonstrate a wide-spread growth of resistance to antibiotics, especially “last resort” antibiotics. In particular the report reveals that this serious threat is no longer a mere forecast for the future. AMR is a contemporary problem in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Consequently the WHO report concludes that antibiotic resistance is now a major threat to public health that needs to be tackled on a global level.

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