Published September 26, 2013
Researchers in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology have developed a new way to stimulate an immune response to gonorrhea.
The treatment—based on an anti-cancer therapy developed by Nejat K. Egilmez, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology—not only eliminated gonococcal infection in female mice but prevented reinfection.
Michael W. Russell, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology, became intrigued with the anti-cancer therapy while he and his colleagues were considering how to modify the immune response to gonococcal infection.
Such infections seem to inhibit specific adaptive immune responses, he says, which is one of the reasons why people can become reinfected.
“Gonococcal infection very cleverly controls the immune system, inducing responses the bacterium can fight and suppressing the responses it cannot fight,” explains Russell, the paper’s senior author.
NanoCap, the sustained release nanoparticle treatment that Egilmez developed, uses Interleukin-12, a protein that helps stimulate an immune response against tumors that normally suppress immunity.
“We had the idea that these IL-12 microspheres being used against tumors could be used to generate an immune response against gonococcal infection as well,” Russell says.
“The research proves they can.”
When the IL-12 microspheres were administered intravaginally in mice, they developed antibodies specific to N. gonorrhoeae, and the infection cleared within days.
A month later, attempts to reinfect the mice with the bacterium failed, demonstrating that they had retained the ability to fight reinfection.
“With this treatment, we have reversed the immunosuppression that gonococcal infection normally causes and allowed an effective immune response to develop,” Russell says.
“It could be argued that when the IL-12 microspheres are administered this way, they serve as an adjuvant that, in effect, converts the gonococcal infection into a live vaccine, thus essentially vaccinating the very population at risk for repeat infections.”
Russell and his colleagues plan to see if immunity can last longer than a month in mice and, ultimately, test the treatment in humans.
Because the new treatment circumvents the development of antibiotic resistance by the bacterium responsible for gonorrhea, it also may lead to new ways to develop non-resistant treatments for other infectious diseases, Russell says.
“If we can use this method to teach the immune system to generate the right kind of response to other recalcitrant infections, we could have a new approach to treat a range of infectious diseases without stimulating drug resistance.”
The UB team’s findings comes at a time when the World Health Organization is warning that soaring drug resistance could cause a global gonorrhea crisis.
Every year, more than 100 million new gonococcal infections occur worldwide.
People with gonorrhea may have no symptoms, but the sexually transmitted disease can cause painful urination in men and, in women, pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to ectopic pregnancy and infertility.
Through TherapyX Inc.—an early stage Buffalo biotech company that Egilmez co-founded to commercialize NanoCap and other drug formulations—the UB researchers have received a $300,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant to develop the gonorrhea treatment.
UB’s Office for Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach has filed for patent protection.
Egilmez co-authored the paper for the Journal of Infectious Diseases. First author was Yingru Liu, MD, PhD, research assistant professor in microbiology and immunology and a principal investigator at TherapyX.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the John R. Oishei Foundation of Buffalo funded the study.