The importance of and advancements in early detection of Lyme disease

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Lyme disease is caused by the bite of an infected blacklegged tick. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but unless it's caught early, it can cause serious, long-lasting side effects, like joint pain and fatigue.

But there is research that may someday help doctors with a reliable diagnosis very early on.

When Carrie Perry takes Roxy out to play, she gets a rubdown with tick repellent. There's no way Perry wants to risk a tick inside her home.

That's because Perry's daughter Samantha had a three-year battle with Lyme disease starting in December of her sophomore year.

"Three-day high fever, neck ache, headache, but then it resolved," Perry said.

But a few weeks later, Sam began feeling exhausted. The competitive athlete kept going, despite joint pain and nausea.

In about 70 percent of the cases, patients develop a bull's-eye-shaped rash. Sam had no rash, so Lyme was overlooked for seven months.

University of Central Florida microbiologist Dr. Mollie Jewett said there is a window of time after a tick bite when infection is difficult to detect.

"As the infection persists longer and longer, over time, those bacteria can move from that tick bite site to different places in the body," Jewett said.

Jewett and her team are researching how the bacteria evades the immune system. They're developing a new diagnostic test of a patient's blood for the very early presence of the bacteria.

After Sam's diagnosis, she took antibiotics, but it was eight weeks of hyperbaric oxygen therapy that finally did the trick. She's now a college junior, studying abroad in Spain, recovered after years of agony.

"People don't understand Lyme," Perry said. "They don't understand what one tick can do to a person."

Jewett's lab is working with engineers at UCF to develop a Lyme detection module that could sit in a doctor's office, but says the device is still several years away.

The Perrys say they visited their family doctor and several specialists, ruling out everything from Hashimoto's disease to leukemia and spent $24,000 out of pocket in one year to treat their daughter's Lyme disease. As a result, they formed the nonprofit Sam's Spoons to raise money for others who need Lyme treatment.

RESEARCH SUMMARY
MEDICAL BREAKTHROUGHS
TOPIC: EARLY DETECTION FOR LYME DISEASE
REPORT: MB #4578

BACKGROUND: Lyme disease (LD) is an infection caused by a type of bacterium called a spirochete that is carried by deer ticks. An infected tick can transmit the spirochete to the humans and animals it bites. Untreated, the bacterium travels through the bloodstream, establishes itself in various body tissues, and can cause a number of symptoms, some of which are severe. Often, an erythema migrans rash appears within 7-14 days at the site of a tick bite. LD manifests itself as a multisystem inflammatory disease that affects the skin in its early, localized stage, and spreads to the joints, nervous system and, to a lesser extent, other organ systems in its later, disseminated stages. If diagnosed and treated early with antibiotics, LD is almost always readily cured. Generally, LD in its later stages can also be treated effectively, but because the rate of disease progression and individual response to treatment varies from one patient to the next, some patients may have symptoms that linger for months or even years following treatment. In rare instances, LD causes permanent damage. (Source: https://www.aldf.com/lyme-disease/)

LYME CARDITIS: Lyme carditis occurs when Lyme disease bacteria enter the tissues of the heart. This can interfere with the normal movement of electrical signals from the heart's upper to lower chambers, a process that coordinates the beating of the heart. The result is something physicians call "heart block," which can be mild, moderate, or severe. Heart block from Lyme carditis can progress rapidly. Based on national surveillance data from 2001-2010, Lyme carditis occurs in approximately one percent of Lyme disease cases reported to CDC. Lyme carditis can be fatal: between 1985 and 2018, nine cases of fatal Lyme carditis have been reported in the medical literature. (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/signs_symptoms/lymecarditis.html)

NEW RESEARCH: Mollie W. Jewett, PhD, Associate Professor, Division Head of Immunity and Pathogenesis, Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at UCF College of Medicine's lab is studying LD. Jewett said, "My lab has two focuses. One is focusing on really trying to work hard to improve that early diagnosis. And we think that that really can be a game changer for patients given how the early definitive diagnosis really is the key for treating the infection and preventing those longer term symptoms from occurring. The other major focus is that we're really interested in understanding how the Borrelia Burgdorferi bacteria is able to move from that initial bite site to actually overcome the body's normal protection mechanisms and move from that bite site to get to those other sites in the body where those debilitating symptoms actually occur." (Source: Mollie W. Jewett, PhD)