Syphilis has become, again, a serious health issue in Latin American countries, with 3 million cases. And every year, because a third of a million pregnant women with syphilis receive no treatment, more than 100,000 children are born with congenital syphilis, and a similar number of miscarriages are suffered.
To cure syphilis “is very cheap, very easy,” said Monica Marín, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Uruguay’s University of the Republic. “We only need penicillin.”
“The sole challenge is to obtain immediate diagnosis.”
The proteins needed for early syphilis detection are derived from the bacterium that causes the disease. Commercial test kits, however, are too expensive to use in a systematic screening of all pregnancies in Latin American countries.
Reducing the price of the tests requires producing high volumes of the proteins. That’s where the UNU Biotechnology Programme for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNU-BIOLAC) provided help, by supporting two courses in the development of diagnostic methods and recombinant protein production and purification processes.
“UNU-BIOLAC was the starting point”, said Dr. Marín. “Without them, this could not have been possible.”
The courses, conducted in Paraguay, were co-organized by researchers from Paraguay and Uruguay. The simple, problem-based goal was to develop a US$1 early syphilis detection test that could be administered together with a pregnancy test in health centers, thus allowing for immediate point-of-care administration of penicillin to treat any detected infection.
According to Dr. Marin, the proteins obtained via DNA technologies used in the training courses “have proven highly sensitive and specific in detecting syphilis. To mass produce them, we are now using UNU-BIOLAC workshops to optimize the genetic expression and purification experimental procedures”.
“By next year”, said Dr. Marin, “we anticipate having ready to use throughout Latin America a diagnostic test of the same quality as those available commercially today, but at least 25 times cheaper.”
UNU-BIOLAC, headquartered in Caracas, provides training and undertakes research at the intersection of science, technology, and society, helping the Latin America and Caribbean region to employ modern biotechnology in social and economic development.