DOH joins private partners to fight ‘superbugs’

Pharmaceutical giant Merck and genomic analysis company OpGen will join the department on a new research program

So-called superbugs—microbes that are resistant to most antibiotics—cause thousands of deaths and millions of illnesses each year and generate tens of billions of dollars in health care costs in the United States alone. To help address the growing problem, the state Department of Health is partnering with pharmaceutical giant Merck and genomic analysis company OpGen on a new research program.

The New York State Life Sciences initiative is committing $22.4 million to the project, which will be based in Albany at the Health Department’s Wadsworth Center. It addresses public health issues through laboratory analysis, research and education.

The partners will develop a digital health and precision-medicine platform designed to connect health care institutions to the Health Department and use genomic microbiology for surveillance and control of antimicrobial resistance, according to the partners. They aim to improve patient outcomes and cut costs, in part by using web-based and mobile platforms to rapidly get test results on drug resistance to health care providers.

Most deaths caused by superbugs are preventable if health care providers can quickly determine the right treatment and deliver it to patients, said Evan Jones, chairman and CEO of OpGen, a 55-employee company in Gaithersburg, Md.

OpGen’s genomic profiling technology for drug-resistant pathogens yields results within two hours, Jones said. A system for sharing that information in real time—such as the one being developed with Merck and the state Health Department—could determine if multiple patients have the same infection and guide decisions on administering antibiotics.

If the first year of the program is successful, the partners plan to expand its reach.

“With the biotech sector thriving in the capital region, we saw an opportunity to tap the talent of our private-sector colleagues to collaborate on this potentially life-saving research,” said Dr. Jill Taylor, Wadsworth Center director.

The state reached out to Merck based on the recommendation of consulting firm Deloitte, a Health Department spokesman said. Deloitte was selected “to ascertain the viability of public-private partnerships” with Wadsworth and “help identify potential partners for the lab to build the life-science ecosystem in the capital region,” the spokesman said. Merck, in turn, brought in OpGen.

The partnership said it plans to select an initial group of participating health systems, most of which will be in the New York metropolitan area.

The Greater New York Hospital Association is planning to convene a group of its member hospitals, a spokesman said, in order for the Health Department to explain the program and to gauge interest.

ILÚM Health Solutions, a wholly owned subsidiary of Merck Healthcare Services and Solutions, will lead the project through the implementation of its technology platform, the partners said. ILÚM plans to relocate its commercial enterprise to the Albany area, investing up to $48.6 million over five years and creating up to 115 jobs. The move also might encourage additional life-sciences collaboration with the Wadsworth Center, according to the state’s announcement.

As for OpGen, Jones said it is committed to adding three employees in the near term in Albany and sees the potential “to build beyond that in a significant way.”

“Various aspects of our precision-medicine business could benefit by working closely with the Wadsworth lab,” he said.