Local health institutions are receiving money to develop a vaccine for syphilis. Doctors from Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and the University of Connecticut will attempt to become the first research unit to test a syphilis vaccine on humans thanks to an $11 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Juan Salazar, the physician-in-chief at Connecticut Children’s, will supervise the collection of bacteria samples. They’ll be taken from different patients across the world in places like China, Colombia, and Malawi – and then sent back to a UConn lab to be analyzed.
“The work that we will be doing – our collaborators across the globe – is to really define the precise population of the syphilis bacteria that is circulating and really put a last name to each one of those strains that is circulating," said Salazar. "And hopefully with our study, we can come up with a product that will have the essential components of a vaccine that can essentially be tested in humans and that could be effective."
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. It can also be passed on from an infected mother to her child. This congenital transmission could lead to abortion or stillbirth.
“A disease that is transmitted sexually is very hard to prevent using the typical measures, so the only way we’re going to be able to do this in my opinion is by developing an effective syphilis vaccine,” Salazar said.
Justin Radolf M.D., a professor of medicine and pediatrics for UConn Health, is the principal investigator for this syphilis vaccine study. He said developing a global vaccine will be challenging because of how hard it is to study the organism. That’s because Treponema pallidum, the bacterium that contains subspecies which cause syphilis, isn’t culturable, according to Radolf.
“Most bacterial pathogens, we can diagnose patients because we get a sample – we can grow the bacterium in the lab and we can then study it,” Radolf said. “With Treponema pallidum that can’t be done.”
Radolf said that researchers must continuously inoculate rabbits to produce strains of the syphilis bacteria.
The team led by Radolf and Salazar is hoping to develop the vaccine over the next five years.