Syphilis, caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, is a chronic bacterial infection with a global distribution. Although this sexually transmitted disease is 100 per cent curable with penicillin, syphilis remains a health threat, with an annual incidence rate of 12 million active infections. In BC, new cases are being reported at almost double the national rate. Unchecked, the infection can damage every tissue and organ in the body, including the brain. Equally troubling, syphilis infection drastically increases vulnerability to HIV infection. Treponema pallidum is a highly invasive pathogen; following attachment to host cells, the organism invades the tissue barrier and enters the circulatory system, resulting in widespread bacterial dissemination. Little is currently known about the mechanisms this bacterium uses to initiate and establish infection.
Dr. Caroline Cameron has the only laboratory in Canada conducting basic research on this bacterium. She is using cutting-edge proteomic technologies to study two molecules that enable the bacterium to attach itself to host cells lining the bloodstream – a critical step in the development of infection. By understanding these mechanisms, Cameron hopes to identify potential ways that scientists could interfere with adhesion and disrupt the infection process. Ultimately, her work could lead to development of a vaccine to prevent syphilis.