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Syphilis cases are on the rise. Now a B.C. researcher is leading a team to develop a vaccine

Click to play video: 'University of Victoria researchers developing syphilis vaccine'
University of Victoria researchers developing syphilis vaccine
B.C. researchers are leading the fight against one of the world's first global diseases that have seen a troubling resurgence in recent years. It's hoped a vaccine can be developed to prevent syphilis, a potentially deadly bacterium that can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy. Kylie Stanton has more.

Syphilis cases are rising across the world, with millions of new cases recorded every year.

A team of researchers, led by University of Victoria microbiologist Caroline Cameron, is now developing a vaccine for syphilis, using a new chain of amino acids composed of portions of multiple proteins from the bacterium Treponema pallidum.

Left untreated, syphilis can damage the heart, brain, eyes, blood vessels and bones, and can eventually lead to death.

Click to play video: '‘Alarming increase’ of syphilis cases in Canada: top doctor'
‘Alarming increase’ of syphilis cases in Canada: top doctor

Congenital syphilis, in which the infection is passed from mother to child during pregnancy, is a severe, disabling and often life-threatening infection seen in infants. Up to half of all infected infants die shortly before or after birth.

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

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Her research has found that despite being treatable with penicillin, syphilis cases have continued to rise in Canada, with 9,000 new cases recorded in 2020.

Cameron said that in the U.S., 3,755 babies were born with congenital syphilis in 2022, a 10-fold increase over the past decade and a 31 per cent spike year over year; these cases caused 282 stillbirths and infant deaths in 2022. Similar trends are seen in parts of Canada, research found.

Click to play video: 'Campaign based on ‘shock value’ seeks to raise awareness of syphilis across Kingston'
Campaign based on ‘shock value’ seeks to raise awareness of syphilis across Kingston

While Cameron is the lead principal investigator, the team also includes co-PI Lorenzo Giacani at the University of Washington, additional investigators at the University of Washington and Duke University, and a diverse team of about 20 others.

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The project is funded by US$7.8 million over five years with support from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S.

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