Syphilis

UConn Health Leads Search for Syphilis Vaccine

Dr. Juan Salazar, left, and Dr. Justin Radolf in Radolf's lab at UConn Health in Farmington.

Dr. Juan Salazar, left, and Dr. Justin Radolf in Radolf's lab at UConn Health in Farmington.


While cases of syphilis in Europe first were recorded over 500 years ago, no vaccine candidates have ever advanced to human clinical trials. A new, international center led by the UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut Children’s aims to change that.

UConn will receive up to $11 million over five years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to develop a vaccine for this centuries-old disease.

Syphilis poses serious health consequences internationally and in the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 10.7 million people between the ages of 15 and 49 had syphilis in 2012, and about 5.6 million people contract it every year.

“An effective syphilis vaccine would represent a triumph for biomedical research over an ailment that has defied conventional public health strategies for prevention and control,” says Dr. Justin Radolf, professor of medicine and pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine and co-principal investigator with Dr. M. Anthony Moody of Duke University. “If successful, the scientific and public health impact of our approach will extend well beyond syphilis and establish a model to tackle other pathogens.”

Syphilis is primarily transmitted through direct contact with an infectious lesion during unprotected sex, and can also be passed from expecting mothers to their unborn children. Syphilis is the second leading cause of stillbirth and miscarriage worldwide. If left untreated, it can cause strokes, dementia, and other neurological diseases in any infected person.

Past attempts to control the syphilis epidemic by treating infected individuals and their partners have proved unsuccessful, largely due to difficulties diagnosing the disease, limited access to care for certain high-risk individuals, and limited resources for effective contact investigation. Furthermore, syphilis and HIV are recognized as “syndemics,” in which both infections can increase the risk of acquisition and transmission of the other.

The international study team comprises researchers from UConn School of Medicine; Connecticut Children’s; the Duke Human Vaccine Institute; the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases; UNC Project-Malawi; Masaryk University in the Czech Republic; and Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China.

“This center combines the unique capabilities of UConn Health’s Spirochete Research Lab with the rest of the study team, which has world-class vaccine research infrastructure, international health expertise, and unparalleled knowledge of bacterial genomics to achieve our long-term objective,” says Dr. Juan Salazar, chair of pediatrics at UConn Health and physician-in-chief at Connecticut Children’s.

Working Together for Better Public Health

Q&A with Dr. Raul Pino, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health and a UConn Health board member

Q

What are some of the major public health issues facing Connecticut?

There are many public health issues facing both Connecticut and the nation as a whole. At the Department of Public Health, our emphasis is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 6|18 initiative, which targets six major health conditions — asthma, high blood pressure, tobacco use, hospital-acquired infections, teen pregnancy, and diabetes — with 18 evidence-based public health interventions.

Each of these conditions is common, preventable, and costly, but importantly, all have proven interventions that can be effectively employed across the health care spectrum to improve both individual and community health, saving lives and dollars. Other areas where I believe we can see good results in Connecticut by employing evidence-based interventions include addressing HIV and the rising number of syphilis cases.


Q

How can physicians assist the DPH daily to address and reduce these issues?

Doctors, particularly primary care physicians, are the main point of contact with the public for health education. We need to engage practitioners in addressing the six major health conditions with their patients — screening for the conditions; educating in advance to enhance prevention of disease; and providing effective, evidence-based treatments when needed. Physicians play a critical role on the front lines of health care to shift our focus from treatment to prevention through lifestyle changes and other healthy choices. They are an indispensable part of the continuum of care between DPH, health care practitioners, and public health.


Q

As DPH commissioner, what drives your daily public health passion and mission?

I am convinced that we — as a nation, a state, and as public health professionals — can do more than we are currently doing to impact public and population health. Addressing the health disparities that continue to plague our population, costing millions of lives and countless health care dollars, is what drives me. We are so fortunate to live in one of the richest countries, and states, in the world, yet we spend so little on public health. My mission is to spread the message that modest investments of money, time, and effort in proven education and prevention methods can lessen these disparities, which will save millions of dollars in health care costs and, more importantly, save lives.


Q

Tell us about your connection to UConn Health and what you hope to accomplish as a member of the board of directors.

I am a 2009 graduate of the UConn Master of Public Health program and receive my own health care at UConn Health. Spending time there for my education and health care has really crystallized for me that UConn Health is the epicenter of clinical care and education in Connecticut. UConn Health is where advances in science and medicine happen, which allows patients to get the best in cutting-edge care. As a member of the board of directors, I am looking to learn and understand better the role that this large institution plays in public health work. I hope my passion for public health and the elimination of health disparities will allow me to give a voice to the importance of integrating education, prevention, public health, and clinical care in order to strengthen our health care system, curb rising health care costs, and foster healthy communities and individuals.