Creating a vaccine for an ancient, all-too-current disease


University of Victoria microbiologist Caroline Cameron working in the lab
University of Victoria microbiologist, Caroline Cameron.

International researchers led by University of Victoria microbiologist Caroline Cameron are developing a vaccine for syphilis, an ancient disease that is, once again, increasingly prevalent. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US is supporting the project with US$7.8 million over five years to engineer a hybrid protein with a goal of preventing infectious and congenital syphilis. 

Cameron, whose lab is the only one in Canada studying the bacterium that causes syphilis, and her research team and partners are engineering a new polypeptide composed of portions of multiple proteins from the bacterium Treponema pallidum.

 “We know it’s not going to be one protein that’s the magic target,” she says. “It’ll be more than one.” 

Syphilis, one of the world’s first global diseases, is resurging again, with millions of new cases occurring worldwide every year. Left untreated, syphilis can damage the heart, brain, eyes, blood vessels and bones, and can eventually lead to death. 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.

Despite being treatable with penicillin, syphilis cases have continued to climb to the highest level in decades in the US and Canada. In the US, there was a 17 per cent jump in one year. In 2020, there were 9,000 new cases in Canada. The disease causes congenital syphilis, threatening the health of babies worldwide. In the US, 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.  

A vaccine is widely seen by the scientific and health-care communities as the route forward, because although syphilis infections can be treated with antibiotics, diagnosis is not straightforward and stigma prevents people from being diagnosed and treated.

While UVic is the lead institution and 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 at all career stages and from both academia and industry. Co-investigator and UVic biochemist Martin Boulanger will engineer a single gene from pieces of multiple genes that encode for sections of different proteins. The result will be a single protein with hybrid features—the chimera.

Chimera in ancient Greek mythology was a fierce fire-breathing hybrid creature that engaged in battle. Cameron and her team’s modern, molecular approach is smaller in scale, but perhaps will be just as devastating to the tiny spiral pathogen that has caused so much anguish throughout so many centuries.

This research, which is also supported by Open Philanthropy, aligns with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals including good health and well-being (SDG 3).

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Media contacts

Caroline Cameron (Dept. of Biochemistry and Microbiology) at 250-853-3189 or

Nicole Crozier (Science Communications) at 250-721-8745 or

Jennifer Kwan (University Communications and Marketing) at 250-721-7641 or

In this story

Keywords: community, disease, health, research, funding, partnership, SDG 3

People: Caroline Cameron, Martin Boulanger

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