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Untreatable Gonorrhea Is Terrifying, So Scientists Are Stepping Up

But don't toss your condoms yet.

Ed Cara

Vice Media

The war against super gonorrhea and other antibiotic-resistant infections is unfortunately a losing one right now. But a study published Monday in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy may provide us some hope for the future.

UK researchers tested out an experimental antibiotic called closthioamide on nearly 150 different lab samples of gonorrhea bacteria (Neisseria gonorrhoeae) taken from real-life hospital patients. They also tested it on antibiotic-resistant samples from the World Health Organization, and four related strains not known to cause disease. The drug was found to be effective at a relatively low dose: It stopped ninety-eight percent, or 146 of the patient samples, dead in their tracks, including all of the resistant strains the WHO provided.

The study was the first to test the drug against gonorrhea bacteria, but it was done in a petri dish; closthioamide still needs to be tested on animals and humans, though the authors say the findings are a positive step forward.

"The imminent threat of untreatable antibiotic-resistant infectious diseases, including gonorrhea, is a global problem, for which we urgently need new antibiotics," lead author John Heap of the Imperial College London said in a statement. "This new finding might help us take the lead in the arms race against antimicrobial resistance." Pharmaceutical companies have become less interested in antibiotics as it's expensive and there's no long-term market for the drugs; once an infection is cleared, they're no longer needed.

Scientists have been cautiously excited about closthioamide since its discovery in 2010 because of its potential to fight off superbugs. The compound, discovered in an oxygen-hating bacteria that lives in compost, is touted as the first in a new class of antibiotics called polythioamides. Though it's been shown to combat a wide variety of bacteria, it seems to cripple them in a different way than current antibiotics do. That's incredibly important because it means bacteria won't easily develop resistance to them by relying on their past tricks. The authors found no proof that this cross-resistance, as it's called, was happening in the new study.

Gonorrhea has quickly become one of the most worrisome antibiotic-resistant dangers out there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists gonorrhea bacteria as one of three "urgent" drug-resistant threats to public health. Though rarely fatal, untreated infections are linked to devastating consequences like miscarriages and infertility. Most strains worldwide are resistant to the antibiotics once used against them, which led to the two-drug cocktail that doctors use now, but there are already scattered reports of infections resistant to that treatment and which required multiple doses to be resolved.

Dire as our need for more weapons against gonorrhea is, closthioamide won't be saving the day anytime soon. Even if more research goes off without a hitch—first in animals, then humans—it'll still take years before we could see it or similar drugs approved for use. As Heap told the Guardian, "There is a long way to go from where we are right now before we have a medicine ready to give to anyone in the clinic." Elsewhere, there are three other experimental drugs further along the pipeline that may or may not come out sooner.

For now, the best way to protect against gonorrhea, as it's always been, is to use condoms and get tested regularly.

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