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Superbugs - the dangerous bacteria that can't be killed by most antibiotics. Doctors and public health experts around the world say superbugs will eventually lead to a crisis in treating infectious diseases. So who's going to do something about it? As part of his series Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca went to California to meet some young scientists who are feeling pretty confident that they are.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Imagine if you will three extremely clean-cut, extremely motivated, extremely intelligent college-age students and you could well be imagining these three.
ZACH ROSENTHAL: I'm Zach Rosenthal.
CHRISTIAN CHOE: I'm Christian Choe.
MARIA FILSINGER INTERRANTE: I'm Maria - Maria Filsinger Interrante.
PALCA: Zach, Christian and Maria and I met in the lower level of a new engineering building on the Stanford University campus.
INTERRANTE: So we're in the Structural Knowledge Center, and this is where we're doing our work for the summer.
PALCA: Maria just graduated from Stanford and is now in an M.D./Ph.D. program. Zach and Christian are rising seniors. Last October, Stanford launched a competition for students interested in developing solutions for big problems in health care but not just theoretical solutions - practical, patentable solutions that could lead to real products. The three young scientists thought they had figured out a way to make a set of proteins that would kill antibiotic resistant bacteria. They convinced a jury of Stanford faculty, biotech types and investors that they were on to something and got $10,000 to develop their idea.
INTERRANTE: And we want to see if our proteins are more effective at killing these resistant bacteria than what's currently available.
PALCA: Now, if you're wondering why three novice scientists think they can do something that's so far flummoxed industry, well, I was wondering that, too.
Aren't pharmaceutical companies interested in doing this as well? I mean, why did they have to leave it to a couple of young graduates from Stanford?
CHOE: So big pharmaceutical companies aren't that interested in pursuing antibiotics largely because the market size is small and because bacteria develop resistance relatively quickly to new drugs, making profits low.
PALCA: But these young entrepreneurs think they've licked the resistance problem.
ROSENTHAL: The way that our proteins operate, that if the bacteria evolve resistance to them, actually the bacteria can no longer live anymore. We target something that's essential to bacterial survival.
PALCA: And what is that something?
INTERRANTE: We're not able to disclose unfortunately.
PALCA: Oh, cool, well, then I really want to know.
INTERRANTE: Yeah, I know, I know, but yeah.
PALCA: So wait a minute. When you say you're not able to disclose, this is your intellectual property. You think you've hit on some Achilles heel of bacteria that you can exploit, and you're looking for proteins that will do that.
CHOE: So we think that our protein has the potential to target a very dangerous multi-drug resistant bacteria.
PALCA: OK. Big ideas, bold ideas, but how about a reality check? Is it a good idea? For an answer to that, I left the lab and headed over to the office of Chaitan Khosla. He's a professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at Stanford and a mentor for the young scientists.
CHAITAN KHOSLA: Yeah, I've been working in the field of antibiotics for the past 25 years, and this is as good as any an idea that I've heard.
PALCA: Even so, Khosla says it's a long shot. Very few compounds make it all the way through the pipeline to become a product approved for sale by the FDA. And even when they do, it can take decades. Well, the trio are aware of that. But for now, Zach Rosenthal says they're going to give it all they've got, even if it means working late into the night after classes and other commitments are finished.
ROSENTHAL: I lose some sleep, but I love what I'm doing, so it's worth it.
PALCA: The team reports preliminary results for their antibiotic proteins are looking good, so all that work may be paying off. Joe Palca, NPR News, Palo Alto.