Womankind Rejoice! There’s Hope For A UTI Vaccine

In mice studies, scientists have shown that a special iron-grabbing molecule can guard against UTIs

Illustration: Vocativ
Nov 07, 2016 at 3:00 PM ET

Living on the toilet, chugging cranberry juice, and peeing liquid fire — it’s a painful reality known by all too many women. That’s because half will at some point in their lives experience a urinary tract infection (UTI), a painful invasion of bacteria that leads to the near-constant urge to urinate. But now researchers have found an ingenious way to prevent these infections in mice — and they say it creates hope for a vaccine for UTIs in humans.

It could mean no more toilet life, no more cranberry juice chugging, no more liquid fire.

UTIs disproportionately affect women, though men can contact them too. That’s thanks in part to the relatively short distance that bacteria has to travel in the female anatomy from the urethra to the bladder. Sex, especially having a lot of it or after a period of abstinence, is considered a high risk-factor — that’s why UTIs are sometimes called the “honeymoon disease.” But, one way or another, bacteria is introduced to the bladder, where it uses molecules known as siderophores to grab iron, which then help it to grow and spread until the unlucky owner of said bladder is crying out to the gods in pain.

More This Is Why It’s So Hard To Get Rid Of UTIs

The researchers behind the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, attempted to turn that growth process against the invading bacteria. They applied siderophores to little mice noses and then introduced bacteria into little mouse bladders. They found the siderophores offered some protection against UTIs. But when they applied the siderophores along with a protein taken from a common UTI-causing bacteria, they found that it created an adaptive immune response that targeted the bacteria and guarded against UTI.

In other words, it appeared to function as a vaccine.

This comes as especially great news now, given recent research finding that the aforementioned cranberry juice chugging, contrary to popular myth, does not prevent or cure UTIs and the growing resistance of strains of UTI bacteria to antibiotics. A troubling 10 to 25 percent of UTI cases are resistant to trimethoprim–sulfamethoxazole, one of the most commonly used antibiotics for treatment, according to the study. A vaccine could, best case scenario, mean preventing UTIs altogether — or, in the very least, prevent it for the many women who suffer recurrent UTIs.

Now, as promising as this seems, the researchers caution that there is a lot more work to do, and that a hypothetical vaccine for human UTIs is several years away. As co-author Harry Mobley, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School, put it in a press release, “This is a step along the journey, but it’s an encouraging one.”