Tomorrow's Health, Today's Research

Dr. Caroline Cameron

Associate Professor, Biochemistry/Microbiology Department
Canada Research Chair in Molecular Pathogenesis
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Research area: host-bacteria interactions, spirochetes, syphilis and leptospirosis
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Research profile:

Syphilis expertise leads to whale research

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 University of Washington, following her PhD at UVic, to help with a new syphilis research project. Now as an Associate Professor with the biochemistry/microbiology department and as a Canada Research Chair in Molecular Pathogenesis, she is the only researcher in Canada performing basic research on this difficult disease.

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 Canada, including an outbreak in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

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 University of Washington have patented a test based on a cocktail of three antigens (the portion of a protein the immune system recognizes) that are better targets to detect. She is currently using recombinant DNA techniques to combine the antigens into one protein to facilitate its production.

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 Buffalo. One of the reasons T. pallidum is so neglected by researchers is that it will not grow outside an animal host, making it devilishly tricky to study. Cameron clones proteins of interest into a related Treponema species that can be grown in the lab.

She also is working with her collaborator at the Vrije Universiteit Medical Center in Amsterdam to identify T. pallidum proteins that bind to sugars using carbohydrate arrays. These proteins are likely to be important in helping the bacteria bind to human cells and spread. Her ultimate goal is to find new drugs, or better yet, a vaccine.

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 North America in a project to figure out how the disease spreads through marine mammal populations. She recently submitted a paper on a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) diagnostic method that should help. Her test can detect the disease in symptom-free animals that may be spreading leptospirosis and wouldn’t otherwise be diagnosed.

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 San Juan Islands to monitor the health of resident Orcas. Cameron is assisting with collecting samples to determining the pathogen repertoire of the sea water and whales.

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.