Despite pledging to cut back on research into anti-infectives earlier this year, AstraZeneca (AZ) has forged a new partnership with Singapore's main research centre to find new antibiotics.
The agreement with the country's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) will focus on finding new treatments for Gram-negative bacteria, which are thought to be responsible for around two-thirds of all hospital-acquired infection deaths.
The three-and-a-half-year collaboration will see AZ provide antimicrobial drug discovery expertise while two A*STAR units - the Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC) and Exploit Technologies - will provide discovery and lead optimisation. The primary aim is to provide a number of preclinical drug candidates for further development.
The project "aims to reverse the global rising tide of antibiotic resistance", said A*STAR and AZ in a joint statement. Financial terms have not been disclosed.
Gram-negative infections are particularly tricky to treat as the bacteria have a double-layered cell wall, which makes it difficult for drugs to enter and remain in the cell.
Faced with increasingly high hurdles in identifying antibiotic drug targets, the larger pharma companies all-but abandoned new antibiotic development in recent years to focus on chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer, which require chronic treatment and so are far more lucrative.
AZ is one of the remaining companies with active programmes in this area, but confirmed it would cut spending on anti-infectives as part of its R&D restructuring exercise announced in March.
The 1980s and 1990s saw dozens of new antibiotics introduced onto the market, but there have just been two launches in the last five years and resistance is on the rise for many serious pathogens. Recognising this, AZ teamed up with four other drugmakers (Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen and Basilea) in February to begin a collaborative R&D programme to counter antibiotic resistance.
Recently, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) said it was increasingly pessimistic that its 10x20 initiative - aimed to bringing 10 new antibiotics to market by 2020 - would be met.
However, the latest announcement comes shortly after Roche signalled a return to anti-infectives development with the acquisition of a drug to treat Pseudomonas infections from Polyphor, raising hopes that big pharma may be regaining its appetite to work on new drugs for bacterial infections.