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Duke Co-Leads International Research Effort to Develop Syphilis Vaccine

The effort involves three projects and builds on recent advances in vaccine development

Published May 10, 2019 | Updated May 10, 2019

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DURHAM, N.C. -- A new international, multi-university center co-led by the Duke Human Vaccine Institute and the University of Connecticut aims to develop a vaccine for syphilis.
 
The Cooperative Research Center is funded with a five-year, $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. 

In addition to Duke and UConn Health, the international study team is comprised of researchers from Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Institute for Global Health and Infectious Disease, Masaryk University in the Czech Republic and Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China.

“The new Cooperative Research Center for syphilis research builds on the Duke Human Vaccine Institute’s strengths and will leverage advances developed to study HIV-1, influenza and other globally important pathogens,” said Anthony Moody, M.D., co-principal investigator of the project. “The program seeks to understand the immunology of syphilis using modern technology with a goal of ultimately making a vaccine against this resurgent pathogen.

Three projects comprise the research effort. The first builds upon research conducted at UConn Health and will select leading vaccine candidates based on bioinformatics, biophysical analysis, and structural modeling, regardless of whether they induce antibodies during the course of syphilitic infection in humans. 

The second project, co-directed at UNC-Chapel Hill, will focus on individuals whose immune systems are able to control infection over time, pointing to antibody targets that could be vaccine candidates.

The third project, which Moody also leads, leverages technology developed for HIV research at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, which will work to identify, isolate and harness the natural antibodies that fight infection for vaccine development.

Syphilis poses serious health consequences internationally, afflicting 5.6 million people every year. Transmitted through direct contact during unprotected sex, syphilis can also be passed from expecting mothers to their unborn children, potentially leading to stillbirth and miscarriage.
 

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