Profiting from the War Against Bacteria

In all my years of research, I have never seen such an era of innovation and breakthroughs in the medical field as we are witnessing today…

Today we are seeing more and more small biotech companies racing toward the next big breakthrough. To be on the forefront of technology in this day and age can lead to outstanding profits…

In the coming years we could see major developments in the treatment of cancers, Alzheimer’s disease and many other life-threatening diseases – in fact there are many companies coming close already.

But one biotech area that sometimes gets forgotten by investors is an area that has not seen a major breakthrough since the 1920s…

What area are we talking about? Antibiotics.

Before I tell you what to look for, first a little background…

Near the end of the roaring ’20s, a young bacteriologist working in the inoculation department of London’s St. Mary’s Hospital made an accidental discovery. Before leaving on a long summer holiday, he had stacked Petri dishes of live bacterial cultures in a corner of his lab.

Upon returning, he discovered that some of the cultures had become contaminated by a mold. A closer examination of the spoiled experiment revealed that everywhere a speck of mold had grown, the bacterial culture had dissolved.

Of course, the young scientist I am talking about is Alexander Fleming, recipient of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. As you know, the contaminant in the cultures was the penicillium mold.

Scientific lore has it that his first reaction to the ruined bacterial cultures was to throw the Petri dishes into a sink filled with disinfectant, irritated that he would have to run the experiment again. When it struck him that he accidentally discovered an anti-bacterial, only one dish was left floating with the lifesaving penicillium mold intact.

Fleming would later go on to cultivate the mold and study the properties of its anti-bacterial secretion, penicillin. Unfortunately, isolating the antibiotic compound to a therapeutically acceptable purity would have to wait a decade longer.

At the University of Oxford, pathologist Howard Florey and chemist Ernst Chain solved the problems of penicillin extraction and purification, for which they share a Nobel with Fleming. Moreover, American drug companies learned the secrets of penicillin mass production during the height of World War II.

A strain was needed that would readily grow in large vats. After a worldwide search, a particularly useful strain was found growing on a cantaloupe in Peoria, Ill. Mass production of the precious antibiotic meant that the war’s wounded had access to a lifesaver. With penicillin, millions of lives were spared that would otherwise have been lost.

Penicillin was not active against all types of infectious bacteria, however. In the 1950s, breakthroughs in the study of the penicillin molecule allowed it to be modified for wider use. This allowed for the creation of a whole family of penicillin-derived antibiotics. It also formed the basis of a search for new antibiotics that is still ongoing today.

Fleming’s contaminated Petri dish was a medical breakthrough that changed the world. Before this wonder drug, death from bacterial infection was commonplace.

Unfortunately, the benefits of penicillin are now in peril.

All conventional antibiotics work by binding to a target inside a bacterium.

For example, bacteriostatic antibiotics work by blocking enzymes important in bacterial reproduction so that the body can catch up with the infection and eliminate it. Bacteriocidal antibiotics, on the other hand, kill the germs outright.

Bacteria, however, evolve defenses against antibiotics. They do this in several ways. Bacteria can evolve their “efflux pumps,” mechanisms for expelling antibiotics and toxins. They can also modify the molecules targeted by antibiotics themselves, rendering them useless.

We are also discovering that bacteria have far more “communal intelligence” than previously thought. Not only can resistance develop in a single bacterial genetic line, horizontal gene transfer means that once a bacterium develops resistance, it can share the genetic information with others.

The results of this evolving resistance are frequently in the news. We hear about outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant “flesh-eating” bacteria in hospitals, for example. Even with our best drugs, hospital infections are still the fourth leading cause of death in the US. Recently, a lethal strain of antibiotic-resistant E. coli has been making headlines in Europe.

Unfortunately, it has been more than a decade since the last truly novel antibiotic compound hit the market. These bugs evolve rapidly, yet traditional drug development methods are running out of targets. If we do not develop a new set of defenses soon, we risk being overwhelmed.

Fortunately, we may not need to rely on serendipity as much as Fleming did in the 1920s. Science has developed a whole new set of tools for drug discovery.

Computational biology has created the ability to screen millions of potential antibiotic compounds at speeds that are orders of magnitude faster than traditional techniques.

A greater understanding of the bacteria and the human body’s own anti-bacterial defenses at the molecular level means that we can create compounds that mimic the latter’s own defensive activity.

While much of the pharmaceutical industry suffers diminishing returns by looking for new variants to old antibiotics, I recommend you research companies that are working toward completely new compounds to fight the bacterial plagues of our time. By finding companies on the verge of brand-new developments, you could have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor…and could possibly pave your way toward transformational gains.

Yours for transformational profits,

Patrick Cox
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning