Small-Molecule Antibiotic Drug Development: Need and Challenges

Megan Bergkessel, Barbara Forte, and Ian H. Gilbert.

ACS Infect. Dis. 2023, 9, 11, 2062–2071
Publication Date:October 11, 2023


The need for new antibiotics is urgent. Antimicrobial resistance is rising, although currently, many more people die from drug-sensitive bacterial infections. The continued evolution of drug resistance is inevitable, fueled by pathogen population size and exposure to antibiotics. Additionally, opportunistic pathogens will always pose a threat to vulnerable patients whose immune systems cannot efficiently fight them even if they are sensitive to available antibiotics, according to clinical microbiology tests. These problems are intertwined and will worsen as human populations age, increase in density, and experience disruptions such as war, extreme weather events, or declines in standard of living. The development of appropriate drugs to treat all the world’s bacterial infections should be a priority, and future success will likely require combinations of multiple approaches. However, the highest burden of bacterial infection is in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, where limited medical infrastructure is a major challenge. For effectively managing infections in these contexts, small-molecule-based treatments offer significant advantages. Unfortunately, support for ongoing small-molecule antibiotic discovery has recently suffered from significant challenges related both to the scientific difficulties in treating bacterial infections and to market barriers. Nevertheless, small-molecule antibiotics remain essential and irreplaceable tools for fighting infections, and efforts to develop novel and improved versions deserve ongoing investment. Here, we first describe the global historical context of antibiotic treatment and then highlight some of the challenges surrounding small-molecule development and potential solutions. Many of these challenges are likely to be common to all modalities of antibacterial treatment and should be addressed directly.