Also in the area of infectious diseases, a section within the Department of Medicine engages in spirochete research under the direction of Justin Radolf, M.D. Spirochetes are an ancient and extremely successful eubacterial phylum characterized by distinctive helical or planar wave-form morphology and flagellar filaments confined to the periplasmic space. Spirochetes from the genera Borrelia, Treponema, and Leptospira are highly invasive pathogens that as the agents of Lyme disease (B. burgdorferi), relapsing fever (B. hermsii, B. recurrentis, and many others), syphilis (Treponema pallidum), and leptospirosis (Leptospira interrogans) pose public health problems of enormous dimensions.
Work conducted in the UConn Health Spirochete Research Labs focuses primarily on Lyme disease and syphilis and has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1989. The goal of our Lyme disease research is to understand the genetic programs that enable Lyme disease spirochetes to transit back and forth between their arthropod vector, Ixodes scapularis, and their mammalian reservoir, typically the white-footed mouse Peromyscus leukopus.
Our syphilis project centers around characterization of T. pallidum’s unusual outer membrane, which enables the bacterium, dubbed “the stealth pathogen,” to evade host defenses and establish persistent infection. In particular, we seek to define the spirochete’s rare outer membrane proteins because of their importance as targets for protective immunity.