Why you should care

Because who doesn’t want a longer and healthier life? 

Sean Brady loves dirt. He’s got an entire closetful of it, in classically brown, cobalt blue and flashy orange. It can come from all over the world, from Mongolian steppes to Little League Baseball diamonds. The exotic stuff is what he really craves, but who knows? Maybe he could find a lifesaving antibiotic in your backyard.

For the past decade, Brady has tested soil samples for genetic material that could lead to next-generation antibiotics. Though Brady and his dirt are based at New York’s Rockefeller University, he’ll be getting off the grant-application-struggle bus presently: His biotech startup has raised $17 million from Bill Gates and others to develop a new drug company. It’s based on the hypothesis that uncharted soil DNA might be fodder for new classes of antibiotics, capable of vanquishing superbugs present and future — think multidrug resistant TB, strep and E. coli. Bacteria are developing resistance faster than researchers are developing new antibiotics, and without a better antibiotic pipeline, the consequences could be dire. A report commissioned by the U.K. predicts that by 2050, antimicrobial resistance could kill more than 10 million people a year and cast medicine “back into the Dark Ages.”

Brady’s plan to keep us out of the Dark Ages involves looking in the dirt, yes, but in a high-tech way: He extracts its DNA and sequences it for potential remedial qualities. Never mind the cold he has when we meet at his office on a damp and chilly March afternoon. “I’d like to save a life,” he says, sniffling and reaching for a tissue. He blows his nose, wetly. “I believe there are many more bullets in nature than we’ve found.” Finding these bullets is a smelly matter I discover, as Brady walks me through a line of centrifuges and $100,000 DNA sequencers. Don’t mind the bacteria, he advises.

Finding new antibiotics has never been easy. Alexander Fleming happened on penicillin by fluke, after he returned from vacation to find some of his staphylococcus samples wiped out from fungus (Fleming first called it “mold juice”). Over the past three decades, scientists have found only one new class of antibiotics, this one by studying a little-known soil microorganism. Brady approaches the problem a little differently because he studies the underlying genetic material, not the molecules themselves. “For all the useful compounds we’ve discovered, there are at least 10 times more waiting to be discovered,” says Jon Clardy, a Harvard professor who is one of Brady’s mentors. Brady believes he’ll find his closest allies in the developing world, which is both eager for new drugs and also full of untapped biodiversity.

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With thin wire frame glasses and a bit of a dad bod, Brady plays right into scientist stereotypes. For hobbies, Brady is adamant that he doesn’t have any. Besides being a father of two and reading his scientific journals, of course. As for his hero, he’s hesitant to name anyone because he’s not into idolizing historical figures. He does credit a lot of his work to Fleming, stopping our conversation at one point to pull up an image of Fleming’s petri dish, with bacteria on one side and penicillin on the other. “That picture has probably saved more lives than any other,” Brady says.

Not everyone backs the operative theory here, which centers on finding new antibiotics. While antibiotics revolutionized the 20th century, critics argue, the advent of superbugs suggests their time is past: If bacteria eventually develop resistance to antibiotics, why keep looking for new ones? Such medications only create a never-ending race between drugs and illness resistance, argues Jeanine Thomas, founder of the MRSA Survivors Network. She believes in prevention (cleaning hospital rooms to lower rates of staph infection, for instance) and not overprescribing.

So does Brady, who’d like the next generation of antibiotics to be used prudently. But he points out that few are actually trying to create the next generation of antibiotics. Most of the antibiotics that doctors sic on maladies are decades old. Back in the ’90s, big pharmaceutical companies gave up on trying to find more drugs when R&D work proved costly and ineffective. Research was siloed into the academic world.

The lab suits Brady these days: “You’re interested in a riddle every day. If it fails, you tinker,” he says. The son of academics, Brady came of age in the great wide world, spending large swaths of time in Mexico and Guatemala taking photos of indigenous groups. Back then, he aimed to be a photographer. But his favorite part of photography, he discovered, was the chemical reaction that took place in the dark room.

He returned to the U.S. to get his bachelor’s at Pomona, in molecular biology, before finishing his graduate work at Cornell and then Harvard. In Harvard’s research culture everyone worked hard, Clardy says, but Brady was “legendary.” In Clardy’s telling, Brady was so sought after for advice that he had to bring an egg timer and set it for 15 minutes during each meeting. Scientists learned to have their questions organized or run out of time with him. (Brady doesn’t remember the egg timer.)

These days, Brady doesn’t have all the answers, but he does have a lead. He hopes that within five to 10 years, he’ll have a new drug ready. He pauses to blow his nose loudly. For now, he just wants to get rid of his cold.

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