B.C. scientist one step closer to developing syphilis vaccine

A University of Victoria researcher is one step closer to developing a potential vaccine against syphilis, after securing a patent for a protein aimed at stopping the disease from entering the blood.

UVic microbiologist focuses on protein that helps bacterium bind to blood vessels

Microbiologist Caroline Cameron says there's a pressing need for a vaccine for syphilis. (University of Victoria)

A University of Victoria researcher is one step closer to developing a potential vaccine against syphilis, after securing a patent for a protein aimed at stopping the disease from entering the blood.

Though syphilis is fully treatable with antibiotics, microbiologist Caroline Cameron said recent events show there's a pressing need for a vaccine.

"It's one of the few pathogens that hasn't developed any sort of resistance, but yet we still have the disease, it's still present, and it's increasing in some populations," Cameron said.

"Clearly, just screening people for the disease presence and then treating them with antibiotics is not getting rid of the disease."

B.C. has seen periodic spikes in syphilis infections in the past two decades, particularly among gay and bisexual men, and the current rates in this province are the highest they've been in 30 years.

But as with many bacterial diseases, developing a vaccine is not a simple process.

Syphilis can be treated using antibiotics, but it isn't going away.

Unlike vaccines for viruses like smallpox or the measles, which use inactivated or weakened forms of the disease agent, it can be tough to pinpoint exactly what aspect of a bacterium an inoculation should target.

Cameron's research focuses on a protein colourfully named TP0751, a protein that helps the syphilis bacterium latch on to the walls of human blood vessels.

"Our concept here is that you can generate an antibody response against this protein, and that will prevent the bacterium from binding to the bloodstream walls and then prevent the bacterium from disseminating into the tissues," she explained.

The theory has yet to be tested in clinical trials with animals or humans, but Cameron said obtaining a patent could help encourage businesses to invest in the development of a potential vaccine.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are 11 million new cases of syphilis every year.