* Drug-resistant superbugs threaten future of healthcare
* Anti-microbial resistance research has been poor relation
* Review says ideas are there but development funds needed (Adds comment from Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar)
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - A global fund should be created to speed development of new antibiotics to counter the growing threat of drug-resistant superbugs, a review backed by the British government said on Thursday.
The review, headed by leading economist and former Goldman Sachs chief Jim O'Neill, said far too little was currently invested in research that could lead to new drugs to fight drug-resistant bacterial and viral infections.
"A lot of innovative thinking is happening in infectious disease research at the moment. These bright ideas need to be developed," the report said. "But lack of funding means that while people, machines and laboratories are ready to tackle the next challenges, they are unable to do so."
The problem of infectious bugs becoming drug-resistant has been a feature of medicine since the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928. But it has grown in recent years as bugs resistant to multiple drugs have developed and drugmakers have cut back investment in this field.
The World Health Organization has warned that unless something drastic is done, many antibiotics could become redundant this century, leaving patients vulnerable to deadly infections, particularly during operations.
Commenting on O'Neill's review and the issue of drug-resistance, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity warned: "This is more than a medical problem: it is a potential economic disaster."
"Multi-drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, E. coli, and salmonella are now commonplace. Most gonorrhoea infections are untreatable," he said. "Superbugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile are proliferating. In India, antibiotic-resistant infections killed more than 58,000 newborns in 2013."
O'Neill, who was asked last year by Britain's prime minister to take an economist's view of the issue, said in his first report that so-called anti-microbial resistance (AMR) could kill an extra 10 million people a year and cost up to $100 trillion by 2050 if it was not brought under control.
In this latest report, O'Neill called on international funders, both philanthropists and governments, to allocate money to a fund "to support blue sky science and incubate ideas that are more mature".
When it comes to research funding, the report said infectious diseases were a "poor relation" compared to chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia.
It said a targeted "innovation fund" could support research to pave the way for new drugs, for alternatives to antibiotics and for new testing technology to ensure the right drugs were used. (Editing by Liisa Tuhkanen and Andrew Heavens)