With the threat of microbial resistance looming and no new antibiotics on the horizon, opening up the challenge to the public may be the answer.
The idea of the International Laboratory for Identification of Antibacterial Drugs (ILIAD) Project, launched in November 2013, is that anyone can purchase a three-step experiment kit from ILIAD to learn about and potentially identify new antibiotics at home.
Each kit contains detailed protocols and materials needed to conduct experiments. The ‘citizen scientist’ first identifies a sample – part of a plant or insect, for instance. To test for antibiotic activity, the sample is then ground up with buffer and placed on an agar plate containing non-pathogenic bacteria. The findings are documented on the website, for other scientists to analyse.
If a sample shows antibiotic activity, it is sent to ILIAD for further tests to identify the compound responsible. These secondary tests will be done under commercial contract and most probably funded through sales and donation.
In the same way that access and open-sourced software revolutionised computing, ILIAD’s founders hope the widespread usage of kits will increase public awareness about antibiotic resistance and ultimately lead to a new antibiotic. ‘We believe science is at the point where it can no longer advance at a rapid pace with a small number of people attempting to do all the work in universities or pharmaceutical companies,’ according to its founders.
‘It’s a great idea,’ says Ruth Massey, who studies pathogenicity of Gram-positive pathogens at Bath University, UK. ‘Although the chance of enough people getting this to work well and then to chance upon a new antibiotic is slim, it’s still a chance, and we are getting to this desperate need.’
Massey says the more important aspect of this project is that it will raise public awareness in the need for new antibiotics and how it can be done. ‘We, the public, need to take responsibility for the current situation and start taking measures to address it,’ she says. ‘This project seems a really imaginative way to try this.’
Other crowd-sourcing science efforts – such as FoldIt (http://fold.it/portal/), Zooniverse (https://www.zooniverse.org/) and Cancer Research UK’s Cell Slider (http://www.cellslider.net/), already recognise the power of the public.
ILIAD co-founder Josiah Zayner, from Chicago University, US, says that while these projects address data challenges, most simply harness the power of people to do busy work or play games. ‘The goal of the ILIAD Project is to not only have people participate in an open science project with consequences but to also learn and be more familiar with science by doing actual experiments,’ he says. ‘In science, we are starting to admit to ourselves that a person can still do science without a PhD and that there can still be smart and intelligent and creative people who are not trained in academia.’