Could a MenB vaccine protect against gonorrhea? GSK wants to find out

Health authorities using a meningitis B shot in a mass vaccination campaign in New Zealand recently found a joyfully surprising byproduct—the vaccine might also offer protection against gonorrhea. Now, GlaxoSmithKline is planning to explore the potential in its newer MenB vaccine Bexsero.

Through a retrospective study, researchers sought to determine meningococcal B vaccine MeNZB’s effectiveness against gonorrhea by examining data from 11 clinics in New Zealand. The team estimated the vaccine was 31% effective against the infection in eligible patients, according to new results in The Lancet.

In a statement, GSK spokeswoman Robin Gaitens said the "observations from this study are encouraging and show the potential for a meningitis B vaccine to deliver additional benefits by helping to prevent gonorrhea."

The findings offer the first glimpse of hope for a possible immunization strategy against the sexually transmitted disease, especially at a time when gradually increasing antibiotic resistance has rendered the infection much harder, and in some cases even impossible, to treat.

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Gaitens told FiercePharma that GSK plans to explore its MenB vaccine star Bexsero’s potential to help protect against gonorrhea. Bexsero contains the same component as the already replaced MeNZB, plus three additional antigens against more MenB strains. If successful, the additional indication would for sure boost Bexsero’s already strong financial performance, as the World Health Organization estimates that about 78 million people worldwide get the infection each year.

A former Novartis vaccine, Bexsero has been a bright spot in recent quarters at GSK, helping push the drugmaker's vaccines sales up 16% during the first three months of this year.

But how could a vaccine against meningitis also be able to fight gonorrhea infection? The gonorrhea-causing agent, a type of bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae, is actually genetically quite similar to Neisseria meningitides, which triggers meningitis. In an Australian government-funded study published in the journal Vaccine in 2015, scientists found that “even partially effective vaccines could have a significant impact on the prevalence of N. gonorrhoeae.”

Efforts to develop a gonorrhea vaccine have not been successful so far, partly because of the bacteria’s variability and repeat infections. To make things worse, the WHO reported on July 7 that it has observed increasing resistance to currently available antibiotics.