Connecticut Children’s Co-Develops First Syphilis Vaccine

For Immediate Release: May 20, 2019
Media Contact:

Monica Buchanan, Director of Community and Media Relations
(860) 837-5701

Hartford, Conn.– The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, awarded $11 million to Connecticut Children’s and the University of Connecticut to establish a new international, multi-university center that will work to develop a vaccine for Syphilis. Syphilis is a disease that dates back more than 500 years, yet no vaccine has ever been brought to human clinical trials.

“This research Center will combine the expertise of Connecticut Children’s infectious disease physicians and researchers and the unique capabilities of UConn Health’s Spirochete Research Lab with the rest of the study team, which has vaccine research infrastructure, international health expertise, and unparalleled knowledge of bacterial genomics to achieve our long-term objective,” explains Juan C. Salazar, M.D., M.P.H., physician-in-chief at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and chair of pediatrics at UConn Health.

“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 Justin Radolf, M.D., Connecticut Children’s senior scientific advisor, professor of medicine and pediatrics at UConn Health and the center’s principal investigator. “If successful, the scientific and public health impact of our approach will extend well beyond syphilis and establish a model to tackle other pathogens.”

Connecticut Children’s played a pivotal role in securing the grant and establishing a global network of collection sites. The proposal represents the culmination of years of work by Drs. Salazar and Radolf and other members of the Spirochete Research Laboratories at UConn Health, now recognized internationally for its leadership in the syphilis field. It also extends a highly productive collaboration over the past 16 years with investigators at CIDEIM, a state-of-the-art research institute located in Cali, Colombia. CIDEIM physicians and researchers, supported by funding from Connecticut Children’s, have helped collect and study numerous syphilis bacteria strain samples that have been critical in identifying potential vaccine targets. It also represents the expansion of a highly productive collaboration developed with researchers at the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the Duke University Human Vaccine Institute.

“This research is extremely important for children’s health. Right now congenital syphilis affects close to 500,000 babies each year. Half of those new cases die in utero from the disease,” said Dr. Salazar. “This is a worldwide problem and we are seeing a resurgence of cases in the US. Preventing venereal syphilis in pregnant mothers will save lives.”

“The increasing rates of primary, secondary and congenital syphilis cases in the last decade, together with limited vaccine candidates make this funding timely,” says Anthony Moody, M.D., the center’s co-principal investigator at the Duke Vaccine Research Institute.

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.

Syphilis has serious health consequences internationally and in the United States. The World Health Organization estimates that 10.7 million people between 15 and 49 years old had syphilis in 2012, and about 5.6 million people contract it every year.

The international study team is comprised of researchers from UConn Health, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, CIDEIM in Cali, Colombia, 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.

About Connecticut Children’s
Connecticut Children’s is the only hospital in Connecticut dedicated exclusively to the care of children and ranked one of the best children’s hospitals in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and a Magnet® designated hospital. Connecticut Children’s provides more than 30 pediatric specialties along with community-based programs to uniquely care for the physical, social, and emotional needs of children. Our team of pediatric experts and care coordinators bring access to breakthrough research, advanced treatments for both rare and common diseases, and innovative health and safety programs to every child. Connecticut Children’s is a not-for-profit organization with a mission to improve access to healthcare for all children through convenient locations, care alliances and partnerships.

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