Syphilis has become a serious health issue (again) in Latin American countries, with 3 million cases. Every year 330,000 pregnant women with syphilis receive no treatment, resulting in 110,000 children born with congenital syphilis and a similar number of miscarriages.

Commercial kits for early syphilis detection are too expensive to use in a systematic screening of all pregnancies in Latin American countries where, in some areas, there are five new cases daily. The proteins needed for the test come from the bacterium that causes syphilis. And reducing the price of the tests requires producing high volumes of these proteins.  

That's where The UN University's Venezuela-based BIOLAC programme, which in 2013 marks 25 years of advancing regional economic and health interests by building biotech science throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, provided help, supporting two courses in the development of diagnosis methods and recombinant protein production and purification processes.

The courses, conducted in Paraguay, were co-organized by Graciela Velazquez and Graciela Russomando of Paraguay and, from Uruguay, Dr. Monica Marín and Mario Señorale. They set a simple problem-based goal: develop a $1 dollar early detection kit that would work as easily as popular pregnancy tests. The syphilis test would be administered together with the pregnancy test in health centers, allowing for immediate point of care administration of penicillin to treat any detected infection.

"Early diagnosis is essential because to cure syphilis we only need penicillin. It is very cheap, very easy. The sole challenge is to obtain immediate diagnosis," says Marín, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Uruguay's University of the Republic. "BIOLAC was the starting point. Without them, this could not have been possible. 

"Obtained via DNA technologies used in the training courses, the proteins have proven highly sensitive and specific in detecting syphilis. To mass produce them, we are now using BIOLAC workshops to optimize the genetic expression and purification experimental procedures.

"By next year, we anticipate having ready to use throughout Latin America a diagnostic test of the same quality as those available commercially today but at least 25 times cheaper.

"UNU-BIOLAC provides training and undertakes research at the intersection of science, technology, and society, helping the region employ modern biotechnology in social and economic development," says Jose Luis Ramirez, Director of the UNU-BIOLAC programme since year 2000.

Headquartered in Caracas at the campus of the Instituto de Estudios Avanzados beside Simon Bolivar University, Dr. Ramirez says a priority in this field is to halt the slow decay of archives of Bolivar's papers.

"UNU-BIOLAC has played a proud and important role in many proud achievements over the past 25 years, exemplified by such breakthroughs as the genetic sequencing of an increasingly valuable grape and the development of a low-cost test for syphilis -- a common and devastating illness," says Dr. Ramirez.

Says United Nations Under Secretary-General David Malone, Rector of UNU: "The conviction driving the launch of this programme -- that biotechnology science can make a major contribution to the health of the people and economies of Latin America and the Caribbean -- has proved true in so many ways over the past quarter century. We look forward to exploring further new possibilities of great relevance to these regions in years ahead."