The Criss laboratory in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Cancer Biology at the University of Virginia investigates the pathogenic mechanisms of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the cause of the bacterial sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea. Gonorrhea affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide every year and has devastating effects on human health. No vaccine against N. gonorrhoeae exists, and strains of N. gonorrhoeae have now emerged that are essentially untreatable with available antibiotics, leading the CDC to identify antibiotic-resistant N. gonorrhoeae as an “urgent,” highest-level public health threat.
Our primary research interest is to understand how N. gonorrhoeae resists clearance by the human immune system. Acute gonorrhea is an inflammatory disease characterized by the recruitment of large numbers of neutrophils to the site of infection. Although neutrophils are generally considered the body’s first defenders against microbial challenge, our research has shown that primary human neutrophils are ineffective at killing N. gonorrhoeae. We have found that N. gonorrhoeae not only encodes gene products that defend against neutrophils and their antimicrobial products, but also prevents neutrophils from fully activating their antimicrobial arsenal. By exploring how N. gonorrhoeae responds to and protects itself from neutrophils, this research can reveal vulnerabilities in the pathogen’s defense mechanisms that can be therapeutically exploited to combat this prevalent, debilitating infectious disease.