As Gonorrhea Develops Widespread Resistance, New Research Sparks Hope for Vaccine


New research suggests that a vaccine designed to protect against meningitis may also protect against gonorrhea infections.

With gonorrhea progressively moving closer to becoming untreatable, researchers everywhere are scrambling for ways to fight back. A new study from a team of scientists from New Zealand, however, offers hope.

According to the scientists, an outer membrane vesicle vaccine designed to protect against meningitis appears to also be capable of protecting against gonorrhea. If this finding is confirmed, it could completely change the game when it comes to battling gonorrhea, as it will mark the “first instance of a vaccine reducing gonorrhea infections,” according to ScienceNews, as efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine for gonorrhea have remained unsuccessful until now.

In their study, published in the Lancet, the scientists note that individuals who received the meningococcal vaccine were less likely to contract gonorrhea. This is encouraging news particularly in light of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent report that Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria have managed to develop widespread resistance to the antibiotics currently used for treatment, including last-line of defense antibiotics in certain countries.

Bacteria are adaptable pathogens, and as such, they will eventually develop resistance against antibiotics developed to treat them. “The emergence of completely drug-resistant gonorrhea is a major concern,” lead author of the study, Helen Petousis-Harris, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, stressed in email correspondence with CNN. “Given the emergence of drug resistance, a vaccine may be our only avenue,” according to Dr. Petousis-Harris, and “even moderate protection” offered by a vaccine could make significant headway against the disease.

The results from a mass bacterial meningitis vaccination campaign that ran from 2004 to 2006, in New Zealand, are what led researchers to the discovery of the vaccine’s effectiveness against gonorrhea. “I wondered, in looking at their results from the outbreak, if there was any possibility that this vaccine might have had any other effects [against other pathogens],” study co-author Steve Black, MD, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, shared in a press release, highlighting that Neisseria gonorrhoeae (bacteria that causes gonorrhea) and Neisseria meningitidis (bacteria that causes meningococcal disease) are “cousins,” in that the organisms’ genetic makeup is “85% to 90% similar.”

By looking at the vaccination campaign results, the scientists noted an interesting decline in gonorrhea cases, and decided to explore further to determine if there was a link. Using data from the New Zealand national vaccine registry, they compared vaccination rates in 2 groups of patients at sexual health clinics in New Zealand who had sexually transmitted diseases: those with gonorrhea, and those with chlamydia.

Dr. Petousis-Harris explained their findings to CNN, “We found that people with gonorrhea were less likely to be vaccinated than people with chlamydia,” and, according to CNN, that indicates that the “vaccine protected against gonorrhea but not chlamydia.” Furthermore, the scientists found that those who did receive vaccination were “significantly less likely” to become infected with gonorrhea than those who did not receive the vaccine (41% vs. 51%), according to the press release.

These findings are leaving researchers hopeful. According to Teodora Wi, a medical officer at WHO’s department of Reproductive Health and Research in Geneva, these findings “provide a very important breakthrough in the development of gonorrhea vaccines.” Adding a vaccine to the arsenal might help researchers get a leg up in the fight against gonorrhea.

The vaccine used in New Zealand is no longer in use; however, there is a similar vaccine available, called Bexsero, which was used to quell a meningococcal B outbreak that occurred at Princeton University in 2013. Researchers are hoping to use this knowledge to develop a vaccine specific to gonorrhea. In the meantime, they are also taking a closer look at other available meningococcal vaccines to see if they can be used to protect against the disease.

“These findings are encouraging,” Mary Anne Rhyne, director of corporate communications at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company behind the development of Bexsero, said to CNN. “The next step for GSK is to further explore and understand the potential of Bexsero to help protect against (gonorrhea).”

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