Syphilis is a multistage disease caused by the invasive spirochete Treponema pallidum subsp. pallidum. Despite inexpensive and effective antibiotic therapy, syphilis remains a prevalent disease in developing countries and has re-emerged as a public health threat in developed nations. In addition to the medical burden imparted by infectious syphilis, congenital syphilis is considered the most significant infectious disease affecting fetuses and newborns worldwide, and individuals afflicted with syphilis have an enhanced risk for HIV transmission and acquisition. The global disease burden of syphilis and failure of decades of public health efforts to stem the incidence of disease highlight the need for an effective syphilis vaccine. Although challenges associated with T. pallidum research have impeded understanding of this pathogen, the existence of a relevant animal model has enabled insight into the correlates of disease protection. Complete protection against infection has been achieved in the animal model using an extended immunization regimen of γ-irradiated T. pallidum, demonstrating the importance of treponemal surface components in generation of protective immunity and the feasibility of syphilis vaccine development. Syphilis is a prime candidate for development of a successful vaccine due to the (1) research community's accumulated knowledge of immune correlates of protection; (2) existence of a relevant animal model that enables effective pre-clinical analyses; (3) universal penicillin susceptibility of T. pallidum which enhances the attractiveness of clinical vaccine trials; and (4) significant public health benefit a vaccine would have on reduction of infectious/congenital syphilis and HIV rates. Critical personnel, research and market gaps need to be addressed before the goal of a syphilis vaccine can be realized, including recruitment of additional researchers to the T. pallidum research field with a proportional increase in research funding, attainment of a definitive understanding of correlates of protection in humans, and engagement of industry/funding partnerships for syphilis vaccine production.
Keywords: Animal model; Congenital infection; HIV susceptibility; Latent infection; Syphilis; Treponema pallidum; Vaccine development.
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