With sexually transmitted infections on the rise, Georgia State researchers working on STD vaccine

Most sexually transmitted infections are relatively easy to detect and treat, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says each year about 20 million Americans contract a sexually transmitted disease. Half of those new cases, the agency says, are young adults under the age of 25.

For two decades, Dr. Cynthia Cornelissen, Ph.D., a professor in Georgia State University's Institute for Biomedical Sciences, has been awarded a $9.25 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to stop gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted infection that can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, pregnancy complications, and infertility.

"Many infections go unrecognized, particularly in women, the infection is often asymptomatic," Cornelissen says. "So, even though they could be treated with antibiotics, they don't know to seek treatment because they don't know they have the infection."

In 2017, the CDC says, 550,606 cases of gonorrhea were reported in the U-S. The South had the highest number of infections and Cornelissen worries antibiotic resistance could one day make gonorrhea untreatable.

"Right now the recommended treatment is with 2 antibiotics simultaneously," she says. "That is in an effort to stave off resistance. The problem is resistance to both of those drugs has already emerged, and treatment failures have already occurred."

Georgia State is one of 5 universities working on vaccines for common sexually transmitted infections. The Atlanta-based team is trying to develop a gonorrhea vaccine. But unlike other vaccine-preventable diseases, like seasonal influenza, gonorrhea doesn't trigger an immune response in the body researchers can target.

"We can't again look at an infected person and say, 'Well, now this person can't get an infection again. What happened? So, what is it about their immune response that is protective,'" Cornelissen says. "We don't have that."

Instead, the GSU team is trying to find a way to block the bacterium from hijacking certain nutrients it needs to grow.

Cornelissen is hopeful.

Still, creating a viable vaccine will likely require years of research.

Until they have one, she says, your best option now is to protect yourself by using condoms or other barriers to prevent the spread of these infections.