I’m not normally one for strong opinions on political issues but the Prime Minister has run over my scientific and emotional toes…with a million pound truck!
David Cameron has announced the Longitude Prize, and among other things suggested it could be awarded for discovering the next penicillin. Now I dig what the PM is trying to do here…get folk thinking, tinkering, experimenting and targeting the big problems society is facing. Antibiotic resistance is definitely one of them (I am an enthusiastic Antibiotic Action signatory), but £1 million is peanuts for discovering the next antibiotic. It costs over £500 million to get a new drug through clinical trials and into the pharmacy. As Derek Lowe (a well-known blogging medicinal chemist) wrote “its like offering $20 for a bar of gold“.
The Longitude Prize is named after the competition, run in the 18th century, to discover an effective way of navigating. The £20000, according to Wikipedia, was never actually awarded, but John Harrison (pictured) who was considered the winner, was given grants and awards for several years to develop his timepieces. I’m sure the idea of the 20 grand was to reward the inventor handsomely and cover any costs, but the 18th century idea of a big prize at the end didn’t work: big problems take time to solve and need investment. This new Longitude Prize appears to be forgetting its own past by NOT investing in research NOR covering costs for the successful inventor or company.
The next antibiotic (and boy do we need one, and need it fast) will come from investment in research (as happened to John Harrison) and sorting out the regulatory framework that makes low value drugs (such as antibiotics) such a poor investment. The high value commercial drugs are long-term treatments acting on biological systems that don’t develop resistance (like people, rather than micro-organisms). The process of regulating medicines is now so complex and expensive that only companies (and big companies at that) can afford it.
According to WHO, antibiotic resistance is one of the three most serious risks to world health – it’s up there with the big dogs. But I’m afraid this shows just how poor the political elite understand this issue. We shouldn’t really expect the PM – who was a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics – to be a drug development chemist, and the new Longitude prize is a good idea. But for a new antibiotic, or any other medicine for that matter, the prize needs to be way higher. I hope some of his science advisors will be straightening him out pretty quick!