The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, today announced awards to establish four Cooperative Research Centers (CRCs) focused on developing vaccines to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The grants, totaling $41.6 million over five years, will support collaborative, multidisciplinary research on the bacteria that cause syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. At the end of the program, each center is expected to identify at least one candidate vaccine ready for testing in clinical trials.
In 2017, 30,644 cases of early syphilis were reported in the United States, an increase of 76 percent since 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Congenital syphilis, or infections passed from mother-to-baby during pregnancy or delivery, have also surged in recent years. Rates have continued to increase since 2017. Syphilis is the second leading cause of miscarriage and stillbirth worldwide. Left untreated, syphilis infection can lead to stroke, dementia or other neurological impairments.
“STI research has recently evolved rapidly on multiple fronts, and this new knowledge can now be applied to a critical remaining challenge—the development of safe and effective vaccines for diseases that pose significant and growing public health burdens. At this time, no vaccines are available to prevent syphilis, gonorrhea or chlamydia. However, research at these new centers should help fill the pipeline with several vaccine candidates that have feasible pathways to licensure in the U.S.”Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID Director
The centers funded through this new program will conduct at least three research projects organized on a common theme. The centers will be supported by scientific cores that will supply shared research services including monoclonal antibody production, microbiology laboratory services and statistical expertise.
One center, based at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, will receive up to $11 million over five years to study syphilis. This center will be headed by University of Connecticut School of Medicine Professor Justin Radolf, M.D., and Duke University Associate Professor Michael Anthony Moody, M.D.
The study team will build on earlier findings using structural biology approaches to investigate surface-exposed proteins within the outer membrane of Treponema pallidum, the bacterium that causes syphilis, which they believe could serve as targets for a vaccine.
Two of the centers are focused on gonorrhea, an STI caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae. More than half a million gonorrhea diagnoses were reported in the United States in 2017, an increase of 67 percent from 2013, according to the CDC. Especially concerning is the fact that the bacteria that cause gonorrhea have become resistant to most antibiotics. In recent years, the CDC reported that ceftriaxone is the only remaining highly effective antibiotic left to treat gonorrhea in the United States. In women, undiagnosed or untreated gonorrhea can lead to endometritis, pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. Babies born to infected mothers are at increased risk of blindness.