Alumni ProfileMichael Barbachyn '79
Discovering a 'miracle medicine'

Michael BarbachynOver 4 million people around the world owe their lives, in part, to Michael Barbachyn ’79. He’s met only a handful of them. Of the others, he knows one thing: They had somehow been infected with bacteria resistant to most antibiotics — but not to the one he helped discover.

In 1985 Barbachyn joined Upjohn, the former pharmaceutical company in Kalamazoo, Mich (now part of Pfizer). Scientists there were working to resolve a medical problem of growing proportions: Antibiotics once used to cure life-threatening infections were failing more often than not. The bacteria causing the infections had mutated over time into strains capable of resisting available drugs. At first the highly resistant bacteria—known by their initials, MRSA, MRSE and VRE — were largely hospital-borne; then some strains began increasingly to appear in community settings such as day care centers and athletic facilities.

At Upjohn, Barbachyn worked with another chemist named Steve Brickner. “Steve had this little submarine project on the side, working with a new class of antibiotics called the oxazolidinones,” Barbachyn said. “Scientists at DuPont discovered the oxazolidinones but eventually abandoned them because of their safety profile. Steve thought that structural modifications of the molecule might improve those safety characteristics.”

It was a time in the drug industry when there was little sharing of research, even within the same company. But he, Brickner and another chemist, Doug Hutchinson, “saw a unique opportunity to bring forward a new class of antibiotics,” Barbachyn said, “so beginning in 1990 we decided to try a new collaborative model.”

It would take the trio about three years to identify the molecule that eventually became known as linezolid and another seven for it to pass all the trials—animal and human—necessary to establish its safety and efficacy. In 2000 the Food and Drug Administration approved linezolid for use under the trade name Zyvox.

That time line, according to Barbachyn, is “reasonably fast. The research and development endeavor leading to a marketed drug is a lengthy, difficult enterprise with generally few successes. Most scientists go into the industry with the goal of getting a drug to market that will make a difference in people’s lives, but the bottom line is, you can work 30 years and never see that outcome.”

Barbachyn did see it, though, and on a grand scale. The president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) has called Zyvox “the first drug in an entirely new class of antibiotics in more than 35 years, a miracle medicine.” In 2007 he presented Barbachyn, Brickner and Hutchinson with PhRMA’s Discoverers Award. The same year the American Chemical Society noted the three men “epitomize the definition of ‘collaborators’” and presented them with its Award for Team Innovation.

“I feel incredibly fortunate,” said Barbachyn of his role on the pioneering team. While acknowledging that scientific rigor, intuition and sheer doggedness were critical to their success, Barbachyn adds that “luck definitely played a role, as it does in many drug discoveries. For someone of faith, though, there’s another level of awareness that comes into play. I feel I was put in a position where I had the right skills, knowledge and tools to do something really useful for society.”

After spending most of the last 24 years in the lab, Barbachyn now works as a manager, directing aspects of the antibacterial drug discovery effort at AstraZeneca in Boston. There research teams are working on the next miracle antibiotics.

“It’s only a matter of time before bacteria develop resistance to Zyvox, too,” Barbachyn said. “Trying to beat them is an invigorating challenge.”