Developing better ways to diagnose and treat syphilis is an important research goal of scientists supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
In the largest major clinical trial of syphilis since the 1950s, NIAID-supported researchers have shown that treating syphilis with oral azithromycin is just as effective as the current standard treatment, which is a series of injections of penicillin. Oral azithromycin has several advantages over injected penicillin: easy-to-take pills instead of a series of painful injections at a health facility; the treatment does not need to be kept cold (which is difficult in many developing areas); and it is less expensive. This study lends support for a potential alternative treatment option for managing syphilis, especially in developing countries where it is difficult to ensure drug delivery.
Scientists are developing new tests that may provide better ways to diagnose syphilis and define the stage of infection. Efforts to develop a diagnostic test that would not require a blood sample are a high priority. For example, researchers are evaluating saliva and urine to see whether they would work as well as blood. Researchers also are trying to develop other diagnostic tests for detecting infection in babies.
In an effort to stem the spread of syphilis, scientists are conducting research that could lead to the development of a vaccine. Molecular biologists are learning more about the various surface parts of the syphilis bacterium that stimulate the immune system to respond to it.
NIAID-funded researchers have also sequenced the genetic blueprint, or genome, of the bacterium that causes syphilis. The DNA sequence represents an encyclopedia of information about the bacterium. Researchers have identified clues in the genome that may help better diagnose, treat, and vaccinate against syphilis, fueling intensive research efforts.