Associate Professor, Biochemistry/Microbiology Department
Canada Research Chair in Molecular Pathogenesis
Research area: host-bacteria interactions, spirochetes, syphilis and leptospirosis
One of the downsides of being a molecular biologist is that it’s hard to get out of the lab. Not for Dr. Caroline Cameron, whose interest in syphilis has led her down an unlikely path to marine biology. While she still primarily researches syphilis, her field work has ranged from catching snot from whales to clambering over seashores (while six-months pregnant no less) in Washington state to help veterinarians take blubber samples from sick seals.
The connection between her projects is a phylum of bacteria called spirochetes, so called because of their spiral shape.
Cameron first became interested in spirochetes when she went to the
She was attracted to syphilis because of its history and its persistence. Syphilis should have been eliminated in the same way as small pox, explains Cameron.
“It is so easily treated early in the disease – just one dose of penicillin,” she says.
Yet there has been a resurgence of syphilis starting with a sharp rise in 1997. Since then cases have continued to rise in localized outbreaks across
The later stage of syphilis infects every organ of the body including the brain (thus the association of syphilis with insanity). Worse, infection with syphilis greatly increases your chance of getting HIV.
In fact, one source of funds for Cameron’s work is a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant for HIV prevention. In that project, Cameron is developing a better test to diagnose syphilis. Several current methods for diagnosing syphilis are based on detecting antibodies in patient’s blood against Treponema pallidum, the spirochete that causes the STD. But these tests are poor at detecting early infections when the risk for contracting HIV is highest.
Cameron and her colleagues at the
Another coup for Cameron is the model system to study T. pallidum she developed in collaboration with her colleague at the State University of New York at
She also is working with her collaborator at the
Meanwhile her expanding molecular expertise leant itself very neatly to an interesting spirochete that is unusual because it can infect virtually any animal, including humans: Leptospira, which causes leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is best known as a disease of dogs, but it may play a part in the mysterious deaths of hundreds of sea lions that wash up along the West Coast about once every seven years.
Cameron works closely with marine biologists, veterinarians and PhD scientists throughout
The test is also useful to diagnose leptospirosis in decomposed carcasses or from feces and urine on the beach. In another project she is using proteomic techniques to compare proteins found in virulent strains of Leptospira to proteins in harmless strains to decipher what makes some strains nasty.
Now the non-profit group Global Research and Rescue is conducting a project in the
Cameron loves how her research on spirochetes has provided her with the chance to get on the ocean next to whales - not part of a typical task for a molecular biologist. It makes one wonder what she’ll do next.