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New England scientists explore new method for eradicating Lyme disease

October 4, 2018

Pennsylvania is No. 1 in an unfortunate category: number of Lyme disease cases, which spiked between 2016 and 2017 according to a Quest Diagnostics report released this summer.

With more than 10,000 infections reported in the state last year, it might seem that any solution is worth trying.

In New England, scientists from Harvard, MIT and Tufts University have begun genetically engineering white-footed mice -- which in the wild carry the Borrelia microbe that causes Lyme disease and pass it along to ticks that feed on their blood -- to produce antibodies resistant to both ticks and a particular Borrelia protein. The idea is that immunizing the mice will have a trickle-down effect to the local tick population.

The plan is to eventually release small groups of mice on local islands off the coast of Massachusetts, where they can be isolated for study, to look at potential options for larger application.

For Dr. Bill Rawls of North Carolina, who contracted Lyme disease and is the author of “Unlocking Lyme,” the solution is much more complex.

“There are a lot of microbes in ticks, not just the Borrelia microbe that is associated with Lyme disease,” said Dr. Rawls, medical director for Vital Plan, an herbal supplement company. “The problem with the mouse thing is that even if it is successful, and you block the transmission of Borrelia and prevent the spread of that variety of Lyme disease, perhaps that opens the door to something worse, like Rickettsia, (a microbe associated with the spread of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever).”

As an advocate of holistic medicine, Dr. Rawls said the increase in Lyme cases, as well as the way it affects humans, is symptomatic of a changing world.

“We’ve radically changed our food supply, we all live under oppressive stress and we don’t exercise,” he said. “And all of those factors affect our immune systems. I think it’s time our society starts looking at problems like Lyme disease in that light.”

The Borrelia microbe has been around for millions of years, as have ticks, Dr. Rawls said.

“So the question is: why are people getting much more sick with it now?” he said. “I see Lyme disease as a fundamental model for all chronic illness.”

Dr. Sam Donta, a Western Pennsylvania native who now lives in Falmouth, Mass., was the keynote speaker at the 2018 Pennsylvania Lyme Medical Conference, held this spring at Drexel University College of Medicine. He has been studying Lyme for three decades, and echoed Dr. Rawls’ view that it is a complex illness.

It is also difficult to diagnose, he said. There is no blood test to see if a person is infected.

“All the blood tests say is whether a person has been exposed,” Dr. Donta said. “I diagnose it clinically. It is a combination of symptoms.”

Those symptoms can be fatal.

The PA Lyme Resource Network is partnering with Storyhouse Documentary Theater to present “The Little Things” on Oct. 13 at Ursinus College in Collegeville outside Philadelphia. It tells the story of a family who lost their son to Lyme disease, and is being dedicated to the memory of three eastern Pennsylvania men who died of Lyme-related complications in 2017.

One of those men, Kevin Furey of Lafayette Hill, Pa., contracted five different infections from one tick bite, according to network officials.

Dr. Rawls said he is not suggesting that the white-footed house proposal is futile, “but there’s the old saying: don’t mess with Mother Nature,” he said. “If you eliminate this microbe, do you open up other pathways for other infections?”

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