UVic microbiologist, researchers developing syphilis vaccine as cases climb

UVic microbiologist, researchers developing syphilis vaccine as cases climb
Caroline Cameron is seen in this file photo.

A Vancouver Island-based microbiologist is leading a team of researchers to develop a vaccine for syphilis, the potentially deadly infection that health officials say has made a comeback.

International researchers, led by University of Victoria (UVic) microbiologist Caroline Cameron, are developing a vaccine for the “ancient disease that is, once again, increasingly prevalent,” according to the university.

It says the feat comes as syphilis cases have “continued to climb to the highest level in decades in the U.S. and Canada.”

Cameron’s lab is the only one in the country studying the bacterium that causes the sexually transmitted infection (STI), says UVic. The team is engineering a new polypeptide composed of multiple proteins in the bacterium Treponema pallidum.

“We know it’s not going to be one protein that’s the magic target,” said Cameron. “It’ll be more than one.” 

Cases on the rise

UVic says syphilis is one of the world’s first global diseases, and it’s resurging again “with millions of new cases occurring worldwide every year.” 

Last December, Island Health reported higher rates of infection across the region, especially in the Central Island area.

Meanwhile, the Government of Canada, in data last updated in March, says the rate of infectious syphilis nationwide has increased by 109 per cent in the past four years. The rate jumps to 599 per cent for infection passed to a fetus during pregnancy.

The latest BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) data reported an increase year after year since 2012, when about two out of every 100,000 people on the Island tested positive. In 2019, more than 16 out of every 100,000 had a positive test.

READ PREVIOUS: Syphilis rates in B.C. rise to highest level in more than 30 years

At the time, a doctor with the BCCDC told CHEK News that people with syphilis often don’t have symptoms and so don’t realize they have it.

Infection develops in four stages, each with a different set of symptoms, according to the B.C. government. One of the first signs is a painless open sore.

“If syphilis isn’t found and treated in the early stages, it can cause other serious health problems. These can include blindness, problems with the nervous system and the heart, and mental disorders,” it says.

“It can also cause death.”

Penicillin is a known treatment, but UVic says a vaccine is “widely seen by the scientific and health-care communities as the route forward.”

It adds that oftentimes, stigma prevents people from being diagnosed and treated.

Health Canada says using condoms correctly or dental dams can lower the likelihood of passing syphilis, and people can get tested with a blood test.

Millions in funding

While Cameron is leading the research, UVic says people from the U.S.-based University of Washington and Duke University are also involved, as well as “about 20 others at all career stages and from both academia and industry.”

It says the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. is supporting the project, providing US$7.8 million over five years to engineer a hybrid protein.

In 2018, Cameron and her team made headlines when they received a patent for their vaccine component that could prevent the spread of syphilis.

“Cameron and her team’s modern, molecular approach is smaller in scale, but perhaps will be just as devastating to the tiny spiral pathogen that has caused so much anguish throughout so many centuries,” added UVic on Monday.

HealthLink BC has more details about syphilis on its website.

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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