A global screening project is searching for new antibiotics by asking chemists to send in novel compounds

Chemists around the world are being called on to donate samples of novel compounds they have synthesised to a crowdsourcing project that aims to find new antibiotics.

The Community for Open Antimicrobial Drug Discovery (CO-ADD) was set up by scientists at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, in response to the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance.

‘Pharmaceutical companies are finding it harder and harder to find new drugs,’ says CO-ADD director Matt Cooper, ‘partly because everyone’s screening the same type of compounds. We’ve got to start to think of more creative approaches.’

He explains academics around the world generate thousands of new compounds every day, but many of these are never considered or investigated as drug candidates. ‘Potentially there are up to 55,000 antibiotics waiting to be discovered in the collective chemistry universe, but they’ve never been screened against key pathogens,’ he says.

CO-ADD is inviting groups to send them their compounds to be screened against various bacteria and fungi, including resistant ‘superbugs’. The cost of screening will be met by CO-ADD, and researchers or institutions donating samples are free to commercialise or pursue any leads that are identified, Cooper explains. ‘They retain all rights to the compound … and can file patents or write grants [on the basis of assay results],’ he says. The only condition, he adds, is that they agree for the screening data to be put into a public database 18 months after getting the results.

‘This will be very valuable in the long-term,’ says Cooper. ‘We still don’t really understand what makes the properties of a good antibiotic – which structural and physiochemical properties of the compound allow it to penetrate bacteria and hit the target.’ Information from the database could offer clues as to which compounds do or do not work against various pathogens, which could help stimulate further research.

Following a successful year-long pilot, the project has won funding from the Wellcome Trust, and has attracted samples from institutions in Australia and New Zealand, as well as those further afield in India, France and the US. ‘The response has been extremely positive,’ says Cooper. ‘I think people recognise that because we don’t affect IP and the service is free, this is purely an activity for the public good.’

The project has been formally running since February, and Cooper is optimistic it will continue well into the future. Although for the time being the focus is on finding novel antibiotics, there is the potential to expand the screening. ‘We could do this for lots of key pathogens, such as malaria or dengue,’ says Cooper. ‘Anything that is a major threat to human health.’

Kim Lewis, who directs the antimicrobial discovery centre at Northeastern University, US, is unconvinced the project will hit upon a new major class of antimicrobial. He points out that efforts to screen soil microorganisms for novel antibiotics have not produced anything new in recent decades. But he adds that having a collection of freely accessibly results – including negative ones – will provide valuable information. ‘Most of the negative screening experience has never been published and we know of it only anecdotally, so it is hard to learn from it,’ he says. ‘This project … may point to hotspots of antibiotic production and to anomalies we have not suspected.’