A start-up that fights superbugs
Bengaluru-based Bugworks expects to begin human trials in two years
Anand Anandkumar’s father was a physician who spent his career fighting infectious diseases in Chennai. It was an infection that killed him.
In and out of hospital for a failing heart, he picked up a bug resistant to most antibiotics and died of complications from sepsis. The story is a common one in the country, where so-called superbugs kill nearly 60,000 newborns every year.
The rapid spread of resistant bacteria has now made the country the epicentre of a war to prevent a post-antibiotic world, where people would once again die in their thousands of commonplace infections. “We’re on the front line,” said Anandkumar, who cofounded Bengaluru-based start-up Bugworks Research India a year after his father’s death, to develop new antibiotics. “We’re creating a bullet against organisms that are taking out humanity. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a battleground to test it on that’s really tough?”
The war is on
The theatre of war is all around him. Years of poorly- controlled antibiotic use in humans and animals, combined with effluent from the local drug industry that turned lakes and streams into breeding grounds for resistance, has left the country with few weapons to fight infection.
Faced with this, the government has begun to act, providing early-research funding to start-ups like Bugworks and Anand Anandkumar, co-founder, Bugworks Research India
providing advice and support. The government funds the start-up incubator, which Bugworks shares with 21 other biotech firms.
Last year, Bugworks became the first company in Asia to receive investment from CARB-X, the US government’s main funding vehicle for the fight against superbugs.
Governments have begun to take concerted action in the last few years. In 2015 the US launched its Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria initiative.
The following year, the UK government commissioned a report that found superbugs kill about 700,000 people around the world each year, a figure that could rise to 10 million a year by 2050 if nothing is done.
Bugworks’ answer is an antibiotic that attacks bacteria in two ways at once rather than the single-target approach of traditional drugs, making it harder for the bug to develop resistance. The drug also evades the bacteria’s own defences, giving it more time to kill the infection.
Anandkumar says the compound has shown effectiveness against lung, blood and urinary tract infections in animals. In about two years he says it should be ready for human trials.