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Merck & Co., Inc. (MRK) and OpGen Inc (OPGN) Are Quietly Changing The Infectious Disease Landscape

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Imagine the following scenario. A patient walks into a hospital with an infectious disease. He sees a physician or a nurse, who diagnoses him, usually on a hunch. In order to try and clear up the infection, the physician prescribes what is essentially a huge cocktail of various antibiotics, in the hope that one of them will solve the problem. Throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks, as they say.

This cocktail either works, and the patient recovers, or it doesn’t, and the patient gets worse or – in many cases – dies. It’s hard to believe, but this is what happens in hospitals all over the developed world at present.

Infectious disease diagnostics and treatment have advanced little in the last 50 years. This has led to the well-documented onset of so called superbugs – infectious diseases that are resistant to currently available antibiotics. MRSA is one. Klebsiella is another. STEC is a third. The list goes on. By 2050, analysts predict antibiotic resistant infectious disease will be responsible for more global deaths than cancer, killing more than 10 million individuals daily. Antibiotic resistance will cause $20 billion excess direct health care costs in the next 35 years, and account for $100 trillion in GDP loss in the US alone. It’s a huge problem, and surprisingly few companies are working to solve it, mostly because the big money is in other diseases.

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Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK) is one exception. Through its venture capital arm, Merck is funding the development of what looks set to become a big part of the solution to the antibiotic resistance problem. It is one of the main candidates for bringing the space into the 21st century.

By way of its Merck Global Health Innovation Fund, LLC, the company owns a 37.5% stake in the development stage biotech that is driving these advances, OpGen Inc (NASDAQ:OPGN).
The two companies are working together on a combination of projects that could change how we treat, identify and interact with infectious diseases in healthcare facilities and beyond. It sounds like an exaggeration, but here’s where we stand now.

The current method of diagnosis and treatment is an analog process. Any testing takes days, and results are variable. It’s not an efficient way of doing things, especially with life-threatening infections. OpGen has put together a system that is designed to shift the space from analog to digital. It is targeting what the company refers to as the Golden Hour – a one-hour period during which a physician can test, identify and diagnose an infectious disease, but not only that, also treat that infectious disease with the antibiotic most likely to be effective against it rather than a cocktail of hit-or-miss.

The company currently has a diagnostics test in hospitals, commercially available and used globally, called QuickFish. It’s designed to identify which pathogen is involved in the infection in 20 minutes. OpGen Inc (NASDAQ:OPGN) is currently trying to get this approved with a digital imager to improve its usability. This is the company’s bread and butter right now, hence its noteworthiness.

Why is it only a legacy tech? Because identifying the pathogen in 20 minutes is a huge advantage over the current system, but it doesn’t complete the picture. Even if physicians know which pathogen to treat, they may now know which antibiotics the pathogen is resistant to. Two versions of the same pathogen can have totally different resistance profiles, and without genetic testing, there’s no way of telling one from the other.

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