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How did the Antibiotic Pipeline Run Dry?

Between 1970 and 2010, the development of new antibiotics slowed down dramatically. This is usually lamented as the empty antibiotic drug pipeline. Our project will study and analyze this process.

For decades after 1945, antibiotics were a powerful symbol of medical technology and progress. But why are there no new classes of antibiotics anymore?

Our project asks how the antibiotic drug pipeline ran dry and it starts from a few hypotheses: In the 1980s, disenchantment with costly screening programs, the customary way to find antibiotics, gained ground. In the 1990s, technology seemed to offer a way out. Synthesizing compounds became automated and so-called targeted drug development, using genomic tools, offered an alternative path to screening. At the same time, a sense of crisis grew with problems of antibiotic innovation and increasing antibiotic resistance becoming part of political debates. By the early 2000s, Big pharma increasingly abandoned antibiotic innovation ­ leaving the field to venture capital-funded, small and medium enterprises. This approach had proven successful for profitable chronic diseases and cancer, but it did not work for antibiotics.

The question of how to re-start antibiotic drug development is high on the agenda of current health politics.

Our project will inform such debates by (1) transforming the notion of the empty pipeline from an often self-serving slogan to a historical concept; (2) providing a complex picture of the generational and gendered dimensions of antibiotic innovation, (3) highlighting the dramatic transformations of pharmaceutical research and development brought about by genomics and venture capital.


In five work packages, which will result in five PhDs, we look at different dimensions of the history we study: 1. Searching for antibiotics at Bayer; 2. The role of targets in drug development; 3. How genomic technologies and new business models changed drug screening and culture collections; 4. Gender relations in the antibiotic drug pipeline; 5. The crisis of antibiotic drug development as a policy laboratory.


Research Council Norway


University of Copenhagen

University College Dublin

Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Spain

Université de Strasbourg, France

Project Start and Finish

1st August 2021 – 31st July 2025



Tags: Antibiotic Resistance
Published Mar. 10, 2021 9:52 AM - Last modified Aug. 19, 2022 8:16 AM


Project Leader Christoph Gradmann 

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WP leaders:

Christoph Gradmann (University of Oslo) 

Jørgen Leisner (Københavens Universitet, Denmark)

Claas Kirchhelle (University College Dublin, Ireland)  

Maria Jesús Santesmases (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Spain)

Frédéric Vagneron (Université de Strasbourg, France)


María Bordons (CSIC)

Clare Chandler (LSHTM)

Jørn Bolstad Christensen (University of Copenhagen)

Heidi Fjeld (UiO / Helsam)

Nicolas Fortané (INRA)

Unni Gopinathan (the Norwegian Institutes of Public Health

María Isabel Porras-Gallo (University of Castilla-La Mancha, Ciudad Real)

Adam Roberts (Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine)

Sally Sheard (University of Liverpool)

Morten Sommer (Technical University of Denmark).