Lorenzo GiacaniDespite the availability of diagnostic tests and effective antibiotic treatment, syphilis is re-emerging as a threat for public health worldwide, with an estimated incidence of 11 million new infections per year and a global burden of 36 million infections.

Syphilis is a chronic infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum that is endemic in low-income countries, and re-emerging in middle-income and high-income countries, particularly among men who have sex with men (MSM). Mortality due to syphilis is high in low-income countries, where the disease causes several hundred thousand stillbirths and neonatal deaths every year and can lead to lifelong morbidity in children born to infected mothers. In addition to its direct morbidity and mortality, syphilis increases the risk of HIV infection. An effective prophylactic vaccine would, therefore, be very helpful to improve syphilis control in addition to standard public health measures.

The University of Washington was awarded an $11 million grant as part of the NIH Sexually Transmitted Infections Cooperative Research Centers (STI CRC) program for their study titled Syphilis Vaccine to Protect Against Local and Disseminated Treponema pallidum Infection. The goal of this grant is to develop a syphilis vaccine to be tested in clinical trials. UW collaborators include Dr. Anna Wald (PI), Dr. Lorenzo Giacani, Dr. Matthew Golden, Dr. Alexander Greninger, Dr. David Koelle, Dr. Sheila Lukehart, Dr. Christina Marra, and Dr. Pavitra Roychoudhury. Other collaborators include Dr. Caroline Cameron (University of Victoria, BC), and Dr. Justin Taylor (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center).

Dr. Lorenzo Giacani, one of the research leaders of the grant noted that “the UW STI CRC is in a unique position to move forward the field of syphilis vaccine development due to an unparalleled history of basic and translational research on the pathogenesis and immunology of syphilis, a significant repository of well-characterized clinical samples and bacterial isolates from syphilis patients, and a strong tradition of close collaborations between the clinical and laboratory-based sides of syphilis research at the University of Washington”