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Expert Rev Vaccines. 2006 Feb;5(1):67-80.

Progress towards an effective syphilis vaccine: the past, present and future.

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  • 1Australian Bacterial Pathogenesis Program, Department of Microbiology, Monash University, VIC 3800, Australia.


Syphilis is a disease caused by infection with the spirochetal pathogen Treponema pallidum subspp. pallidum. Despite intensive efforts, the unusual biology of T. pallidum has hindered progress towards the development of a vaccine to prevent infection. This review describes previous endeavors to develop a syphilis vaccine, outlines the key issues in the field and proposes new directions in the design of a T. pallidum vaccine. Following a brief overview of the disease symptoms, epidemiology, diagnosis and treatment, a case is put forward for the benefit of pursuing a syphilis vaccine. Relevant material concerning immunity to T. pallidum infection is summarized and evaluated, and pilot experiments describing the use of whole-cell bacterin vaccines and similar preparations are included. A detailed section concerning subunit vaccines is provided, incorporating discussions pertaining to relevant antigen selection, the identification of putative T. pallidum surface-exposed outer membrane proteins, factors hindering previous attempts to vaccinate with recombinant outer membrane proteins, problems and pitfalls of syphilis outer membrane protein-based vaccines, anti-attachment vaccines and the potential use of nonprotein subunit preparations as vaccinogens. Subsequently, critical aspects concerning vaccine antigen preparation and delivery are noted, including protein conformation, synergy, post-translational modifications, live attenuated organisms as vaccine vectors, prime-boost methodologies, adjuvant selection and immunization routes. Finally, animal models are discussed with particular reference to immunoprotection studies. A more thorough understanding of immunity to syphilis, a comprehensive assessment of the immunoprotective capacity of the putative surface-accessible antigens of T. pallidum and utilization of the latest advances in vaccine science should set the scene for future development of a syphilis vaccine.

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