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Can the government encourage the development of new antibiotics?

Can the government encourage the development of new antibiotics?
A law passed in 2012 offered new incentives for companies to create new kinds of antibiotics. So far, none have materialized. (Fotolia / TNS)

It's been nearly 30 years since scientists have found a new class of antibiotics. But U.S. lawmakers tried to give the drug industry a boost in 2012.

That year, they passed the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act. It included provisions — collectively known as Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now, or GAIN — aimed at streamlining the government approval process for new antibiotics. It also boosted financial paybacks to drug companies that develop them.

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The law has spurred the introduction of several new medicines. But none so far represents a new class of antibiotic or treats a drug-resistant strain for which effective medicine does not already exist. They are called "me-too" drugs, created by engineering small changes in the chemical structure of existing antibiotics.

To foster the discovery of truly innovative medicines, drug companies may need to be offered more extensive inducements, including tax breaks or market guarantees, said Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and former associate commissioner of the FDA.

The federal government may even need to do what it has done for antiradiation drugs and some vaccines, he said: Pay for their development and buy and stock these products itself.

Follow me on Twitter @LATMelissaHealy and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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