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Biological Chemistry

Taking Aim At Lyme Disease

Efforts are under way to develop a vaccine and better diagnostics for outdoor threat

by Government & Policy Department
June 24, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 25


Credit: Scott Camazine/Science Source
Lyme disease tick. Deer tick (Ixodes scapularis, previously known as Ixodes dammini). It transmits lyme disease to humans. The female tick can feed on human blood, and in the process may transmit the bacterium Borrelia burgdorfi, cause of Lyme disease. Symptoms of this disease include skin lesions, cardiac and neurological abnormalities, and arthritis. Lyme disease is carried by I.scapularis in north and mid-west USA; and in Europe by the tick I.ricinus.
Credit: Scott Camazine/Science Source

Barbecues, camping, hiking, and biking in the woods—the many outdoor rituals and activities of summer are in full swing. Memorial Day picnics soon give way to Fourth of July fireworks and August heat.

But by autumn, tens of thousands of people in North America and Europe—especially children, but many adults, too—will have had their summer idyll shattered by contracting Lyme disease, a serious bacterial spirochete infection spread to humans by the common deer tick.

Thousands more people will not even realize that they have been infected with the Lyme disease organism, Borrelia burgdorferi. Infection occurs when a tick carrying B. burgdorferi finds a human host, begins to feed, and transmits the bacteria.

Over the 30-year period of 1982 to 2012, about 400,000 cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. were reported to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. However, the disease is likely to be underreported. Some people estimate there could be as many as 600,000 cases per year in the U.S., growing at about 6% each year.

Some 70% of infected individuals become aware they’ve contracted Lyme disease after they develop a bull’s-eye skin rash called erythema migrans. Other symptoms include joint, heart, and central nervous system problems. Symptoms may take months or years to erupt, and the damage to health may become chronic and permanent.

There is an urgent need to prevent infection, through a vaccine, and to improve diagnosis of the disease. C&EN examines this in two stories. First, we report on the struggles accompanying vaccine development, which are social and scientific.

Without a vaccine, the emphasis is on new diagnostic tests, the topic of the second story. Current tests only detect antibodies formed in response to the infection, which may take several weeks for a person to develop. Negative results are common in the early stages of the disease when antibiotics are most effective. But new ways to measure infection quickly are showing signs of progress.



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