[LONDON] GlaxoSmithKline Plc is considering whether to develop a new vaccine against a sexually-transmitted infection that's threatening to become unstoppable.
The company is already in discussions with regulators about how the label on Bexsero, its vaccine that prevents a form of meningitis, could be expanded to include gonorrhea, an age-old disease that's becoming harder to treat, according to Emmanuel Hanon, head of research and development at Glaxo's vaccine unit. The U.K. drugmaker is also looking at the possibility of developing a vaccine targeted specifically against gonorrhea, which might be more effective, he said.
Urgency is rising as the bacterium becomes increasingly resistant to antibiotics and spreads more rapidly. US infections climbed 19 per cent last year. Glaxo would need to decide on whether to engage in the effort as Chief Executive Officer Emma Walmsley pares back drug programs to focus on those most likely to succeed. No decision has been made on which direction the company will take, Hanon said.
"We have all the knowledge and technology to make a real gonorrhea vaccine," he said in an interview at Glaxo's manufacturing site near Brussels. "This is one of the biggest threats."
Drug-resistant gonorrhea is included among the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's list of urgent public health threats. Australia and the U.K. have seen cases for which no standard therapy currently exists, the House of Commons in London said in a report last month.
Bexsero came into the spotlight after a study in New Zealand showed for the first time that meningitis vaccines might be useful for preventing gonorrhea. In the study, a custom-made meningococcal B vaccine was associated with an estimated 31 per cent protection against the infection, known colloquially as "the clap."
The Glaxo shot is already approved to prevent meningitis B, and now scientists want to test it against gonorrhea, too. However, the results from the New Zealand study suggest that a new, targeted shot might be needed, Hanon said.
Efficacy of about 30 per cent "is good, but it's not optimal," he said. "We want 90."
Hanon said any decision about next steps would depend in part on regulators' feedback. Glaxo, which has 14 potential vaccines in development against various diseases, would need to weigh that against other options.
"There is a need," for a vaccine, Hanon said. "If we get the evidence we can do it, we'll do it."