Using a specialized chamber, UVic microbiology professor Caroline Cameron works with the bacterium that causes syphilis. She’s researching a better diagnostic test and vaccine for the STI. (Courtesy UVic Photo Services)

Using a specialized chamber, UVic microbiology professor Caroline Cameron works with the bacterium that causes syphilis. She’s researching a better diagnostic test and vaccine for the STI. (Courtesy UVic Photo Services)

B.C. researcher working to develop world’s first syphilis vaccine after case spike

More than 1,400 B.C. residents contracted the STI in 2021

A University of Victoria researcher is working to develop a better test for syphilis and the first vaccine against it, as cases of the sexually transmitted infection steadily rise across B.C. and the world.

Caroline Cameron, a microbiologist at UVic, will be conducting the research with the help of a $2-million US grant from Open Philanthropy, an organization that funds large-scale causes such as global health and development.

Left untreated, syphilis poses a serious risk to people’s health. It can damage the heart, brain, eyes, blood vessels and bones, and eventually lead to death. If passed from a mother to child during pregnancy, syphilis can also result in disabling, and often life-threatening infections in infants.

READ ALSO: B.C. recommends increased syphilis testing during pregnancy, as infection rates spike

Despite being one of the world’s first global diseases, no one has developed a vaccine against syphilis. Cameron will be investing much of her time in researching the little-known bacterium that causes the STI, Treponema pallidum. Her lab is one of only a few in the world, and the only one in Canada, doing this work.

“The number of disease cases versus the number of researchers is disproportionate – and the number of cases is going up,” Cameron said in a press release.

In B.C., 1,436 new cases of infectious syphilis were reported in 2021, according to preliminary data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. That’s up from 912 cases the year before, and just 191 cases 10 years prior in 2011. The vast majority of cases are among men and those aged 25 to 29.

If Cameron’s team manages to develop a vaccine, they’ll also be able to create a new diagnostic testing method that is able to differentiate between current versus previous infections. Accurately detecting the disease early on is important, as syphilis can be treated with antibiotics.

“If we hope to reduce and ultimately eradicate this disease, we need to develop this technology now,” Cameron said.

READ ALSO: Removing the stigma: CDC wants you to talk about sex as STIs continue to surge in B.C.


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