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1 June 2017

There has been a lot of talk and scaremongering in respect to the growing resistance of common infectious bacteria to modern antibiotics.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has become a real problem in many hospitals, causing persistent and sometimes fatal infections in patients, especially after surgery. As each day goes by, our arsenal of effective antibiotics which can deal with such infections continues to dwindle.

The problem is that nasty bacteria have such a rapid rate of reproduction that they can evolve resistance in relatively short timeframes -- many millions of times more quickly than slower-reproducing organisms (such as humans) can make evolutionary adaptations to their environment.

There has been much speculation that there may come a day when mankind is left defenseless against the worst of these rapidly-evolving bacteria -- our arsenal of antibiotics spent and rendered useless by the effects of lightning-fast changes in the very chemistry and make-up of these nasties.

But now there is light on the horizon.

According to a piece on Arstechnica, a breakthrough has been made which effectively boosts the power of an existing antibiotic by some 25,000 times and which simultaneously makes it very hard for bacteria to evolve a way around its effects.

The Arstechnica article has a good explanation of how it goes about turning regular vancomycin into a super-drug and it's well worth a read -- but perhaps the real story here is kind of hidden in the detail.

This breakthrough wasn't discovered by Pfizer, Novartis, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline or any of the other huge pharmaceutical companies we normally associate with breakthroughs in exotic drugs and treatments.

No, it was discovered by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute, a private non-profit research organisation.

We're constantly being told that newly patented medicines cost such a huge amount of money because most of that revenue is poured back into R&D for the development of even better treatments. So why is it that a non-profit organisation has come up with what may well prove to be the single biggest breakthrough in medicine this century?

Does this perhaps hint that the current system, whereby we rely on huge corporate organisations driven by profit, to develop new drugs and treatments -- is flawed?

Might we be better to pour money into private non-profit research organisations like Scripps and benefit from effectively turning Porches and 10,000 sq ft mansions into life-saving drugs, by making sure the money goes where it will do most good?

Of course the very thought that this might happen would be revolting to the largely capitalist society we have nurtured and fed over the past 100 years or more -- but I seriously think that while capitalism is fine when you're making fridges, cars and shoes -- it's not something that mates well with critical services such as healthcare and research.

Hands up who can remember (yes, that's you Ian :) when New Zealand had its own independent, government-funded non-profit scientific research organisation?

Why is it that such an organisation has now fallen out of favour and instead, we simply give large chunks of taxpayers' money to the likes of Martin Aircraft and RocketLab (which is now a US company)?

We all know that the directors of companies which receive massive chunks of cash from government are rarely on the bones of their backsides and one only has to look at what happened with NavMan to realise just how much of this cash is effectively a "gift" to those directors.

How many lives will be saved because a non-profit organisation has seemingly come up with a new lifeline in the battle against antibiotic resistance? Where was "big pharma" while the boys at Scripps were doing the hard work? Out on their yachts or cruising around in their Lambos perhaps?

What do readers think?

Is capitalism sometimes a burden and an inefficiency when it comes to pure research?

Should those who are researching in critical areas (such as health) be freed from commercial pressures so that they can actually do the best research they can -- rather than being forced to chase the mighty dollar by their bosses?

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