When antibiotics first achieved widescale use in the middle of the 20th century, they had a tremendous impact. For example, the mortality rate in England from infectious disease dropped from 25% in 1900, to less than 1% by 1950. As time went on, antibiotics became an essential toolkit of the practicing physician. It was inevitable that natural selection would create drug-resistant bacterial strains. This has grown from a minor nuisance to a looming crisis in the last 30 years. We need new antibiotics, but between 2004 and 2014, only 12 new antibiotics have been approved. In recognition of the growing threat, antibiotic discovery has increased, but many of these drugs are in phase 1 or 2 clinical trials. The medical and scientific community needs to step up and create more opportunities for antibiotic discovery.
Three large, community-based efforts are stepping into the breach to provide more candidates for drug discovery. The Tiny Earth Initiative and other efforts like it are devoted to educating students and discovering antibiotics. Students do real research in a lab course and in the process isolate bacteria that are creating antimicrobial compounds. Those that look promising are sent to industry for further study. Jo Handelsman of the University of Wisconsin started the program while working at Yale University. Currently, tens of thousands of students participate worldwide.
The Citizen Science Soil Collection Program enlists everyone who lives near the soil, to grab some of it and send it off to scientists at the University of Oklahoma's Natural Products Discovery group for analysis. They then hunt for new fungi producing natural products of interest.
The UK-based Swab and Send project is also collecting samples. In this case, it is up to the participant to swap something they think will be of interest and send it to scientists in the UK to analyze.
Hopefully, these efforts will result in the discovery of new candidate drugs.