Researchers are paving the way toward a new therapeutic approach for gonorrhea by shedding light on the mechanism behind important proteins on the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria’s outer membrane.

Future therapies could come in the form of new antibiotics or, even better, a vaccine.

The findings are especially important as Neisseria gonorrhoeae is considered a “superbug” because of its resistance to all classes of antibiotics available for treating infections.

Gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease whose numbers grow by 78 million new cases worldwide each year, is highly damaging to reproductive and neonatal health if untreated or improperly treated.

It can lead to endometritis, pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, epididymitis and infertility. Babies born to infected mothers are at increased risk of blindness.

Research led by co-corresponding authors Aleksandra Sikora of Oregon State University and Nicholas Noinaj of Purdue University provides key structural and functional insights into a multicomponent protein complex known as BAM, short for beta-barrel assembly machinery.

In Gram-negative bacteria, BAM is responsible for the biogenesis of beta-barrel proteins on the cells’ outer membranes.

Outer membrane proteins have crucial physiological and structural functions, among them nutrient acquisition, secretion, signal transduction, outer membrane biogenesis, and motility. In pathogenic bacteria, those proteins also lead to host colonization and can exploit immune responses, facilitating virulence.

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