Although one of the oldest recognized sexually transmitted diseases of major public health importance, syphilis is still very poorly understood. Much of this lack of knowledge stems from the inability to grow the causative bacterium, Treponema pallidum, in the laboratory. Most people think that syphilis has been all but stamped out, but syphilis remains an important sexually transmitted disease in the United States, and it is particularly prevalent in Texas. In this regard, congenital syphilis continues to pose a significant problem in neonates born to mothers who have not had adequate prenatal care.
In a novel approach, our laboratory studies the proteins that are located on or near the outer surface of the organism; we are the only research group in the world using this innovative molecular approach. By understanding these proteins as both the physical and functional interface with the human host, we hope to gain important clues about how the syphilis bacterium sustains its chronic infection. We have been active in solving the three-dimensional structures of a number of these proteins; these efforts have provided new insights into how the bacterium can survive in humans, thereby yielding clues about how potentially to interrupt the infectious process.