A five-year, $3.3 million grant to develop a molecular diagnostic test for congenital syphilis has been awarded to researchers from UTHealth Houston by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Irene Stafford, MD, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, is the principal investigator of the R01HD108201 grant.

Congenital syphilis can have severe health consequences on a baby; however, how it impacts the baby depends on when or if the mother received treatment for the infection.

“Right now, there is a lack of sensitive diagnostic tests to determine whether or not a baby has developed congenital syphilis,” says Stafford, who is a maternal-fetal medicine physician with UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School. “Everything is based on an algorithm of whether or not the mom has received treatment or if the baby is showing any signs of syphilis, or has abnormally high syphilis serology labs. So, you have to go through a checklist to determine if they have it and newborns require months of follow-up to determine infection status. Our goal is to create a test for syphilis that is effective, so we can do immediate treatment.”

Further reading: The Evolution of Syphilis Testing

Babies born with congenital syphilis can have bone damage, severe anemia, enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice, nerve problems causing blindness or deafness, meningitis, or skin rashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Locally, syphilis cases in Houston have increased 128% since 2019, and numbers are the highest ever nationally in more than 12 years. “One-fourth of the nation’s syphilis cases come from Texas,” Stafford says.

The multicenter study, which includes Baylor College of Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the University of California, the University of Southern California, and The Ohio State University, will also focus on neurodevelopment testing of babies born with syphilis. Neurodevelopment issues impact 60% of babies born with syphilis who are left untreated, according to Stafford.

“The reality is that right now, we are having a boom of cases across the country and especially here in Texas. We are doing the best with what we have, but this test could be an incredible step in treating and diagnosing congenital syphilis,” she says.

Currently, researchers are looking to enroll 995 patients across all sites.

Stafford leads a perinatal syphilis program at UT Physicians, where she has dedicated a clinic day for patients with syphilis. 

“Through this program, we’re going to have better outcomes, and hopefully reduce the burden of infection, especially in our city,” she said.

Featured image: Stafford leads a perinatal syphilis program at UT Physicians, where she has dedicated a clinic day for patients with syphilis. Photo: UTHealth Houston