President, Ferring Pharmaceuticals
Chief Science and Medical Officer, Ferring Pharmaceuticals
To preserve the utility of antibiotics, the world needs to change its approach to treating disease. A potential way forward is by harnessing the power of the human microbiome.
It’s all so depressingly predictable, says Per Falk, President of biopharma company Ferring Pharmaceuticals.
Mankind has misused — and over-used — life-saving antibiotics, reducing their effectiveness and taking us to the brink of potential medical disaster.
The effects of antibiotic misuse
“This isn’t a new concern,” explains Falk. “Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, warned about antibiotic resistance in his Nobel prize acceptance speech in the mid-1940s.”
“The fact is that bacteria have a tendency to adapt very quickly,” explains Falk. “They change and they learn — but, evidently, we don’t.”
We have to be successful and find a non-antibiotic answer to infection. There is no option not to!
“Tragically, the estimate is that by 2050, more people will die of bacterial or other infections than of cancer. That’s a position we haven’t been in for decades.”
This is not to say that antibiotics have outlived their usefulness and won’t play a major part in healthcare going forward. On the contrary, they will continue to be lifesavers.
“However, we need to use them only when necessary,” stresses Falk. “We must find a way to beat infectious diseases with non-antibiotic treatments, and to reduce the overall antibiotic use in society to maintain their effects when it is needed. It is crucial to ensure their effectiveness long-term to treat potentially deadly and contagious infectious diseases.”
The significance of the microbiome
That’s why life science players are currently showing enormous interest in the human microbiome, the genome of a complex community of microorganisms which live on every surface of the human body.
Scientists have known about the microbiome for over a century but understanding the role it plays in disease has only been possible thanks to technological advances made over the last three decades.
Research now shows that the microbiome supports the maintenance and development of the immune system, metabolism, and other functions essential to life.
When the microbiome malfunctions, the body’s microbial biology becomes unbalanced with pathogenic bacteria, which can lead to disease.
This can include skin diseases such as acne and psoriasis, inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s Disease or rheumatoid arthritis, and serious and systemic diseases, such as Clostridioides difficile (C.diff).
When antibiotics aren’t the answer
“Unfortunately, antibiotics can’t be used to treat C.diff completely, because antibiotics are the very drugs that cause it,” Falk points out.
Instead, the idea is to use live, life-changing microbiome therapies to restore a person’s microbial ecology and, ultimately, good health.
In simple terms, ‘good’ bacteria are employed to fight ‘bad’ bacteria. “This may be a new and better way to treat infectious disease and so save lives,” says Falk.
At present, a microbiome therapy is in late stage clinical development at Ferring, which will hopefully be an effective treatment option for C.diff.
However, Mirjam Mol-Arts, Chief Science Officer and Chief Medical Officer at Ferring Pharmaceuticals, cautions that the science is still in its infancy, and that more work is needed on the regulatory and clinical side to make microbiota-based therapies accessible to patients and physicians.
Breakthroughs are possible in the near future
The good news is that this area of life science is currently attracting huge venture capital interest. This increases the likelihood that significant and varied microbiome breakthroughs could benefit patients in the next 10 years and avert resistance to life-saving antibiotics.
“This is still just the first step,” says Mol-Arts. “But we have to be successful and find a non-antibiotic answer to infection. There is no option not to!”
Thankfully, both Falk and Mol-Arts feel as though science is on the cusp of discovery.
“In the next few years we’ll see the first microbiome drugs emerging that have been tested and approved according to proper standards,” says Falk.
“While Ferring is leading the charge in developing microbiota-based therapeutics, there are three or four companies currently in the race to reach approval. Hopefully more than one of us will succeed. We need different ways of approaching disease to help patients — and there is room for everyone.”