Meningococcal vaccine may reduce gonorrhoea incidence

Media release | Published on 12 Dec 2019

A world-first trial for a promising gonorrhoea vaccine will be led by Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics and the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney.

The $2.7 million study incorporates five Australian universities and three health districts and providers, and will test whether a meningococcal B vaccine protects against gonorrhoea in gay and bisexual men.

“Gonorrhoea is a global public health concern, especially as we are seeing increases in antibiotic resistance,’’ Institute for Glycomics lead investigator Associate Professor Kate Seib said.

“Infection rates have almost doubled in Australia over the past five years and are particularly high among gay and bisexual men. Gonorrhoea is also increasing in heterosexuals.”

“But we know that the bacteria causing gonorrhoea and meningococcal B disease are very similar, and observational data indicates that a meningococcal vaccine may protect against gonorrhoea,’’ she said.

The researchers will study whether gay and bisexual men at high risk of contracting gonorrhoea, who receive a meningococcal B vaccine have fewer new cases of gonorrhoea compared to those who do not receive the vaccine.

“We hope the outcomes of the project will see a potential repurposing of a licensed vaccine and/or the development of an optimised vaccine to prevent gonorrhoea, which will revolutionise global approaches to gonorrhoea prevention,’’ Dr Seib said.

Modelling led by the Kirby Institute and Dr Seib has demonstrated that a well targeted vaccine that is only 50% effective would halve the prevalence of gonorrhoea within 10 years.

Kirby Institute Professor Basil Donovan said it is essential to bring gonorrhoea under control in the coming years before resistance to antibiotics renders the condition untreatable.

“Australia has already seen its first cases of multi-drug resistant gonorrhoea. This vaccine is the best chance we’ve had to control gonorrhoea.”

Professor Mark von Itzstein AO, Director of the Institute for Glycomics, said the upcoming trial held a lot of promise in the fight against gonorrhoea, a major research focus at the Institute.

“Recent cases of multi-drug resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which are resistant to all commonly used antibiotics, highlight the urgent need for effective preventive measures, such as a vaccine. We look forward to seeing the results of this study.”

The randomised placebo-controlled trial is funded by the NHMRC and will be conducted among 730 gay and bisexual men at four sexual health clinics in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. The results of the trial should be known by the end of 2023. Recruitment will begin in the second half of 2020.

Community health leader ACON is partnering with Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics and the Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney, on this research project.

ACON Chief Executive Officer Nicolas Parkhill says continuing high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among the gay community, especially the significant increases in gonorrhoea in recent years is a major public health challenge.

“Through statewide campaigns and community education programs, ACON has promoted condom use, regular testing and treatment as the main tools to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

“This research project has the potential to deliver a safe and easy-to-use new biomedical tool that could greatly reduce the transmission of gonorrhoea among gay men,” Mr Parkhill said.

About gonorrhoea:

Once known as ”the clap” gonorrhoea is a sexually transmissible infection caused by the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria which can infect the throat, anus, urethra, cervix and eyes – risking pain, infertility, blindness, and spread to internal organs. The inflammation caused by gonorrhoea is known to promote the transmission of HIV.

This media release was prepared by Deborah Marshall from Griffith University.