Gunning to beat back a global scourge of superbugs, a transatlantic group is committing tens of millions of dollars, some of that from American taxpayers, to back biotech startups developing novel antibiotics.

The project, called CARB-X, plans to dole out $44 million in its first year and as much as $350 million in the next five years in grants to small companies. It’ll draw funds from the US government and a public-private initiative in the United Kingdom.

The goal is to get at least two new drugs into human trials in the next five years.

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“We’re not looking for just the next iteration on an existing class [of drugs]. We’re looking for substantial improvement and novel approaches,” said Joe Larsen, acting deputy director of BARDA, the division of the US Department of Health and Human Services that’s providing funds for the project.

Drug-resistant bacteria kill about 700,000 people each year, and that number could rise to 10 million by 2050 without a new arsenal of drugs, according to a UK report released in May. Meanwhile, public health officials warn that the pipeline of novel treatments is precariously thin, a problem made all the more dire by the drug industry’s waning commitment to antibiotic research.

In the coming months, CARB-X plans to roll out a website where potential partners can apply for funding and a spot at one of four startup accelerators — one in Boston, another in San Francisco, and two in the UK. Once accepted, startups will have access to help from the Wellcome Trust, the Broad Institute, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Each accelerator may develop slightly different timetables for reviewing applications, but the goal is six weeks or less, said Kevin Outterson, a law professor at Boston University who serves as the program’s executive director.

“We want the process to be faster and more efficient than any other funding mechanism that may be available to them,” he said.

While any entity is encouraged to apply, Outterson expects that most of the money will go to biotech startups, rather than universities or pharma giants.

The superbugs are growing in number and strength and it's our fault. Hyacinth Empinado/STAT

“If you look at the last eight new antibiotics that were approved by the FDA, seven were initiated by small to medium-sized companies,” he said. “Most end up in the hands of larger companies, but most early and preclinical work is done by smaller companies. Big pharma has clearly walked away from preclinical antibiotic R&D.”

CARB-X will not hold intellectual property rights to any projects it supports or equity positions in any of the companies it funds, Larsen said.

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