Associate Professor Mark Blaskovich
Director, Centre for Superbug Solutions at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience and co-founder of the Community for Open Antimicrobial Drug Discovery at The University of Queensland
David Hyun, M.D
Director, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Antibiotic Resistance Project
An antibiotic data-sharing platform is helping scientists around the globe tackle the ongoing threat of AMR.
Antibiotic resistance is a dire and growing public health threat, with the United Nations projecting that by 2050 drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths globally each year. New antibiotics are urgently needed to protect patients from antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” but low returns on investment have led many pharmaceutical companies to leave the field of antibiotic research and development.
Collaborating through open platforms
To preserve a treasure trove of scientific knowledge that might otherwise be lost, in 2018 The Pew Charitable Trusts created the Shared Platform for Antibiotic Research and Knowledge (SPARK), a tool designed to gather data from discontinued research and other sources and made it available to scientists carrying on the work around the globe. Scientists can collaborate on the open platform; learn from past successes and failures; and build on the knowledge base created by fellow researchers. In the past three years, more than 800 users in over 60 countries have engaged with SPARK.
The platform functions as a virtual, cloud-based laboratory, enabling scientists to contribute data and insights as well as generate new ideas for future drugs and currently focuses on the most dangerous superbugs: resistant Gram-negative bacteria. SPARK hosts information on nearly 160,000 compounds and more than 120,000 associated data points from scientific journals and data contributed by individual users and companies including Merck, Kyorin, Novartis, and Achaogen.
The global development pipeline for new antibiotics is running dry.
Discovering new antimicrobial drugs
Pew is now transferring SPARK to The University of Queensland’s Community for Open Antimicrobial Drug Discovery (CO-ADD). Founded in 2015 as a not-for-profit initiative based at UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, CO-ADD’s goal is to help discover antimicrobial drugs by offering free screening of diverse synthetic chemical compounds submitted by academic collaborators.
CO-ADD has tested more than 300,000 compounds and identified more than 2,500 that are antimicrobial at concentrations that are nontoxic to human cells, which could be starting points for future antimicrobial drugs. CO-ADD has been a significant contributor of SPARK data and CO-ADD’s chemoinformatics expert, Dr Johannes Zuegg, helped advise Pew on SPARK’s development.
Both Pew and CO-ADD aim to foster collaborations to drive antibiotic innovation as the threat of untreatable superbugs grows. Without new antibiotics, the world risks a return to the days when a simple schoolyard scrape could lead to a deadly infection. Moreover, without effective antibiotics, medical procedures we take for granted today—chemotherapy, joint replacements and liver transplants, to name a few—would be too dangerous to undertake. Yet even though antibiotics are indispensable to the conduct of modern medicine, the global development pipeline for new antibiotics is running dry.
Public benefit to the global community
Government agencies, non-profit organisations and research institutions are recognising the need to fill the gap. The comprehensive, open-access knowledge base is a public benefit to help the global community come together to discover effective, new antibiotics. CO-ADD’s goal is to use its expertise in identifying antimicrobial compounds to build on SPARK’s success and give the platform a secure, long-term future.
CO-ADD will integrate SPARK with its own open access initiatives, recruiting more data and expanding the content to include Gram-positive compounds, cytotoxicity test results and bacterial isolate profiles from both academic and industry scientists. Working closely with research journals and organisations leading the way on antibiotic resistance—including its current collaborators, the Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator (CARB-X) and the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership (GARDP)—CO-ADD will optimise the usability of the SPARK database, and further anticipates launching a predictive modelling component so that SPARK users can test artificial intelligence or machine learning tools.