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Giant panda, by Erick Solorzano

Will panda blood solve the antibiotic crisis? Unlikely.

There’s a story going round about Chinese scientists who have discovered a “powerful antibiotic” in the blood of the giant panda. It seems to have originated in the Daily Telegraph, where Richard Gray wrote:

“Researchers discovered the compound, known as cathelicidin-AM, after analysing the panda’s DNA… Dr Xiuwen Yan, who led the research at the Life Sciences College of Nanjing Agricultural University in China, said: “It showed potential antimicrobial activities against wide spectrum of microorganisms including bacteria and fungi, both standard and drug-resistant strains. Under the pressure of increasing microorganisms with drug resistance against conventional antibiotics, there is urgent need to develop new type of antimicrobial agents.“

Let me put this plainly: If this discovery actually leads to a new antibiotic—one that is actually used in the clinic to treat real people—I will eat a panda.

(Actually, that sounds bad. A man in a panda suit. Wait, still not good. A stick of bamboo. You get the point.)

Stories like these are a dime a dozen. Scientists have discovered a new antibiotic, hundreds of new antibiotics, thousands of new antibiotics, in panda blood, in alligator blood, in cockroach brains, in ocean mould, in frog skin, in frog skin, and in yet more frog skin. All are billed as potential sources of bold new treatments that will solve our antibiotic crisis, and provide new weapons against drug-resistant superbugs like MRSA.

And yet, despite decades of such claims, none of these sources has yielded a single marketable drug. We’re still sitting in the drug discovery doldrums, with just one class of new antibiotics in the last 50 years. We are running out of ideas, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to our frontline drugs, and nothing is coming in to fill the gap.

In a new piece for The Scientist, I discuss why panda blood and frog skin are of academic interest only, and unlikely to solve this problem. Head over there to get the details.

For now, I’ll clarify that, obviously, there’s an outside chance that one of these sources will lead to a new drug. But there’s a huge gulf between finding a substance that kills bacteria in a dish and actually creating a new drug that works in real people. These stories are being hyped too early by press offices, covered too uncritically by journalists, and maybe even published too readily by journals.

As one of the scientists I spoke to said: “A reasonable starting point for any story worthy of publishing is to have an effective compound in a systemic mouse model of infection. Once you cross that barrier, then it makes sense to talk about it.”

So, if Substance X can actually treat bacterial infections in a sick mouse, let’s hear about it. Otherwise, you’re just promoting red herrings in the shape of pandas.