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Breakthrough in Detecting Lyme Disease Could Lead to Better Treatment

Brandon Jutras

With temperatures in the U.S. on an upward trend, so is Lyme Disease. The ticks that carry it thrive in warm, wet environments and it’s expected that some 300,000 people will contract the disease this year.

Now, new research out of Virginia Tech is showing promise for better diagnosis and treatment.

Forty-five years ago, a strange disease was discovered in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  Symptoms looked like arthritis, but the victims were young children. We later learned the cause was bacteria, transmitted by a tick bite. Lyme is now the most reported disease of its kind in the country, according the Centers for Disease Control. But to this day, it’s difficult to diagnose.  Not everyone who is bitten by a Lyme carrying tick will come down with it.  We’ll explain why in a moment.  And even though it is considered highly treatable, there are several biological traps bacteria use to thwart efforts to cure people who have it.

“The bacteria that causes Lyme Disease is actually unique, chemically,” says Virginia Tech biochemist Brandon Jutras.  Jutras and his team have just completed a  four-year study of the bacteria in question, borrelia burgdorferi, and they found something strange about the cell wall that surrounds it.  “It has some different modifications in it that don’t exist in other bacteria.”

Turns out, unlike other bacteria which can be obliterated with antibiotics, this one plays a nasty trick.  Even after treatment, it leaves a molecule behind, that until now, had been undetectable.  Jutras and his team  “have confirmed that in patients we can actually detect the molecule, peptidoglycan, the cell wall component long after infection and long after (patients) have been treated with antibiotics.”

And as it lingers undetected, inflammation takes hold causing that hallmark, arthritic like pain. Jutras points out, most cell walls, disappear along with the bacteria they contain, when hit with the right drug.  But this peptidoglycan leaves that tiny package behind, and that’s what causes the inflammation.

“Because that response is unique and specific to this peptidoglycan, we think it could act as diagnostic, telling patients ‘yes you have this infection’ or ‘no, you don’t’.” Jutras says you might avoid treatment all together if you know you’ve been bitten by a tick.  He points out, it can take 20 to 30 hours for the bacteria in the tick’s gut to reach its victim.  Even though ticks are tiny, it’s a long slow journey to their salivary glands, where they deposit the bacteria after they’ve latched on for the bite.  “So, if you get bit by a tick and you remove that tick promptly," Jutras says, "you have virtually no chance of getting Lyme disease.”

But you have to know to check, and the ticks that spread Lyme have been spreading to areas people haven’t seen them in before. Jutras thinks “climate change and an increase in the overall temperature is certainly a factor” in the equation.

Because ticks thrive in warm, wet regions-- they dry up and die in dry heat-- Butras says we’re seeing cases of Lyme disease skyrocket in warmer, wetter parts of the U.S. and Canada and notably in southwestern Virginia. “It’s been a developing process over the last ten or fifteen years. In the New River Valley area, specifically and if you look at the current number of cases and the geographical maps, in terms of where Lyme Disease is, the NRV has become a massive hotspot for Lyme Disease.  I think it comes down to our climate because it is a little bit cooler, but the winters are a little bit warmer, so that’s really allowing the ticks to thrive.”

Jutras and his collaborators hope to roll out protocols for testing and treating the disease, based on their findings.  Meantime, he has this practical advice for prevention:

“Rake up your leaves turns out ticks have to live at least one winter, so where do they survive in the winters? It turns out they tend to actually end up in leaf piles because it’s insulated, and it’s a little bit warmer and a little part more humid. So if you rake up your leaves in the fall the chance of harboring ticks in your area may be reduced.”

This Study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.