April 2 (UPI) -- Researchers in Australia have discovered how the gonorrhea bacteria evades the immune system, which may lead to way for allowing the body's natural defenses to kill the bug.
Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute researchers studied how the smaller gonorrhea-causing superbug creates tinier packages of bacterial membrane blebs, which are called vesicles and attack immune cells. The researchers' findings were published Monday in PLOS Pathogens.
The researchers used super-resolution microscopy, finding the bacteria's membrane vesicles interacted with the cells in the human immune system called macrophages, which ordinarily kill foreign invaders, including bacteria and viruses. Without the macrophages, the gonorrhea bacteria can flourish.
Gonorrhea can lead to infertility, transmission of the disease to newborn babies and increased risk of HIV infections.
In the United States, there were 468,514 cases of gonorrhea in 2016, which is an 18.5 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says "anyone who has sex is at risk," but people aged 15-24, gay and bisexual men and pregnant women are the most at risk.
Worldwide, there are about 78 million gonorrhea cases annually, the World Health Organization reported last December.
Gonorrhea, which is caused by bacteria, can rapidly become resistant to all known antibiotics and is one of several raising concern about antibiotic resistance. The 2016 Review on Antimicrobial Resistance found that antibiotic resistant infection will kill an extra 10 million people a year worldwide without new therapies.
"In the absence of effective vaccines and the rise of antibiotic resistance, understanding the molecular interactions between innate immune cells and N. gonorrhoeae may lead to new strategies to combat bacterial growth and the symptoms of gonorrhea," researchers wrote in the paper.
In Britain, health officials have reported that a strain of gonorrhea was found to be resistant to the two main drugs used to treat it -- ceftriaxone and azithromycin -- for one man. He is showing signs, however, of responding to a different drug, ertapenem, which is related to ceftriaxone.
"This is the first time a case has displayed such high-level resistance to both of these drugs and to most other commonly used antibiotics," Dr. Gwenda Hughes, from Public Health England, told the BBC.
"We are following up this case to ensure that the infection was effectively treated with other options and the risk of any onward transmission is minimized."