Pathogen Profile: Treponema pallidum subsp. Pallidum AKA Syphilis AKA The Lady Proxima of Organisms
Updated: Feb 7
The Lady Proxima of Organisms
Why is Treponema pallidum, the causal agent of Syphilis, also deemed the Lady Proxima of Organisms in our book? Well for a few reasons.
Some of you might know that Lady Proxima is a worm-like alien known as a Grindalid in the Star Wars universe.
Treponema spp. are bacteria classified as spirochete. Spirochetes are worm-like in shape, often visualized as corkscrews or spirals.
Lady Proxima was featured in Solo: A Star Wars Story as a crime boss on Corellia. She and her white worms would feed young Corellians in exchange for criminal activity. This allows them to infiltrate the deepest parts of society.
Syphilis is a very systemic disease, infiltrating all parts of the body including the central nervous system, eyes, organs, and skin.
In addition, the crime boss symbolism fits well, as Treponema pallidum is thought to be the true downfall of our own infamous gangster, Al Capone. Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in a federal penitentiary after pleading guilty to tax evasion. During his time in prison, he deteriorated greatly many believe from syphilis.
Finally, Grindalids are not very adaptable, they are easily burned by light and thus need to remain in a certain niche.
Treponema pallidum is also not very adaptable and is easily killed by another generic thing, penicillin.
And so we bring you a pathogen profile on Treponema pallidum: The Lady Proxima of Organisms.
Treponema pallidum is transmitted through blood and bodily fluid. Most people contract it through sexual contact with an infected person. In fact, if you have unsafe sex with someone who has syphilis, you have a 30% chance of contracting the disease.
It does not take many organisms to start an infection.
Infected mothers can also pass it down to their children through placental transfer in what is called congenital syphilis. This can cause spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, death of the newborn, or the baby can be born with the disease. All are terrible and not necessary! The best defense against syphilis is always protected, so like have sex but do it safely ;).
Syphilis occurs in 4 very different stages. In the primary stage a chancre forms, usually 3 weeks after exposure. The chancre will last for 1-5 weeks, but then will resolve; lymph nodes may also enlarge, but will not hurt.
In the secondary stage, symptoms manifest like a lot of diseases, such as fever, headaches, sore throats, and a rash. Mucous patches on the mouth, vagina or anus, joint pain, and anorexia may also occur.
Next comes the latent period, it is here where everything mysteriously disappears and the victim is left with few symptoms. But it is here, that the disease shifts from acute to chronic, which is never good. At this stage, one may relapse back into the secondary stage (honestly seems preferable) or they may slip into the late latent stage.
There are no more symptoms, they are feeling great and they aren’t even passing that bacteria when they have sex, sweet.
At this point, ⅓ of patients who do not seek treatment will pass into the fourth and final stage of the disease, tertiary syphilis. The point of true body deterioration.
This horrific stage may not occur in victims until some 10-20 years after the initial exposure! If you are unfortunate enough to reach this stage you can expect gumma, which is lesions on the skin and bones. Besides bodily deformities, you better believe you’re going to get some hefty cardiovascular complications. This may include aortic regurgitations, coronary ostial stenosis, or saccular aneurysm.
But wait there’s more; syphilis won’t just give you cardiovascular disease, but can also destroy your whole neurological system, and who doesn’t want that?
This package includes everyone’s favorite and totally safe behavioral changes like meningovascular syphilis, vertigo, insomnia, personality changes, loss of consciousness, and seizures.
And if this is still not enough for you, we can throw in death as well at no extra charge.
Oh, and did we mention the Syphilis package also greatly increases your chances of also getting and transmitting HIV?
Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that just keeps giving and giving.
Luckily, the return policy on this free gift is rather good. It just takes a visit to the doctors' office. They do a quick survey of your sexual history over the last 90 days (I hope you can remember, no receipt no return!).
However, even without the receipt doctors are sometimes kind enough to view your transaction under dark field microscopy to detect the actual claim that you received said goods. They will likely screen you in a nontreponemal test followed by a treponemal test, just to confirm. If it all checks out they can take just a bit of your blood for an antigen test to see if you truly are a victim.
If they really wanted to be sure, and if they totally hated cute adorable bunnies, they take the blood and inject it into a rabbit and watch it die. If it does, lucky you, you get a refund. If it doesn’t, well the bunny will still probably die, but still lucky you as now you know you don’t have syphilis.
Treponema pallidum does not have a lipopolysaccharide or LPS, which is often found in bacteria.
Host cells, like your own, have constant detectives monitoring the body to pick up these LPS signals and send in their secret agents to destroy the terrorists and or invaders. But Treponema pallidum does not have LPS, so they evade your secret service. They can’t find them as they have no identifying qualities of intruders. This allows the bacteria to spread throughout the body and causes so many different symptoms.
Treponema pallidum also is not thought to possess a T3SS (type three secretion system = bacterial artillery). Many pathogens are equipped with such an arsenal to protect or invade various hosts.
Treponema stays hidden from cells by hiding its identity and doesn’t carry around an arsenal system. It does, however, create lipoproteins, which probably trigger the immune system to respond, but just not enough.
This secrecy allows Treponema pallidum to invade quickly and quietly throughout your body. This microbe can hitch a ride with your cells attaching to epithelial, fibroblasts, and endothelial cells, allowing easy access to the body.
T. pallidum has a unique shape called a spirochete, like a corkscrew that allows them to move in tough and mucky spots.
They also have a state of the art GPS system, we in the “biz” call this chemotaxis (chemo= chemical, taxis=taxi...sort of). Basically, they can sense where is good and where is bad and move toward good and away from bad. Man, I wish I had that ability a few boyfriends ago.
Despite the horrors, Treponema pallidum can inflict on the human host, it is relatively easy to treat. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, doctors would literally poison people with arsenic and mercury to rid the body of this spirochete.
Treponema pallidum may cause terrible symptoms that destroy the body and soul, but it itself is a weakling.
Penicillin easily interferes with cell wall production of T. palladium and cures the host of syphilis.
Vaccines have been proposed, but none have been completed as of yet.
Fun Syphilis Facts:
Syphilis was once a huge deal in America; there were whole propaganda campaigns against this disease, trying to persuade soldiers to keep it in their pants, not for morality because it's the US government, but more for the medical bills they have to pay you if you get sick. At any rate, during WWII there were around 500,000 infections per year! Today, estimates of nearly 12 million new cases arise every year.
I also want to tell you another little antidote exemplifying the importance of controls and why you should never really use yourself as a test subject unless you are Barry Marshall, it sort of worked for him. I’ll say it in a limerick because those are fun educational tools:
There once was a Scottish man named Jon Hunter
Who wanted to see how syphilis and gonorrhea may differ
He inoculated him
And it soon turned grim
The inoculum contained both and he grew sicker!