Lyme Disease is currently one of the most misunderstood diseases in the world. Some in the medical community refuse to acknowledge that it exists in the chronic form and that longer term treatment is required. However, new research has recently emerged, giving fresh insight into why the bacteria that causes Lyme disease can be so resistant to antibiotics – giving even more credibility to those that say chronic lyme disease exists and should be treated accordingly.
Dr. Eva Sapi, associate professor of biology and environmental science at the University of New Haven, is the lead author of a paper showing that the bacteria is capable of forming a biofilm that could allow it to resist harsh environmental conditions. “This is important because identifying this form of biofilm opens up research ideas of how to eliminate or kill this bacteria,” Sapi said.
Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness, particularly prevalent in children younger than 10, that can be difficult to diagnose. Early symptoms include an expanding red rash that can appear around the tick bite, as well as flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue and muscle aches. Later symptoms can include heart problems, arthritis and neurologic problems.
The illness is named for Lyme, Conn., where it was said to have first been identified in 1975.
Every year, there are thousands of Lyme disease cases in the United States. According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, last year there were more than 24,000 confirmed Lyme diseases cases nationwide and roughly 2,000 in Connecticut. So far this year, there have been 1,114 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the state, and 650 probable cases.
Sapi’s paper, published this week in the online science journal The Public Library of Science ONE, focuses on the bacterium Borrelia burgdoferi, which causes Lyme disease. The study shows that the bacterium is able change its shape and “hide” for periods of time thanks to the formation of the biofilm — a slimy substance that often forms on surfaces that are in contact with water. For instance, that slimy stuff that the dentist removes from your teeth during a cleaning? That’s a biofilm.
It’s made of bacteria and other microrganisms and might be the key to Borrelia burgdoferi’s resilience, Sapi said. However, her research so far has only taken place in test tubes. The next step is for her to experiment on the bacteria in samples and infected mouse and human tissues to see if the biofilm retains its ability to help the Borrelia burgdoferi survive and spread.
Other research has been done on Lyme disease and its reaction to antibiotics, including a study released earlier this year by researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine. That study showed that mice infected with Borrelia burgdorferi responded well to antibiotics, but that traces of proteins the bacteria remained long after the bacteria itself was gone.
Of Sapi’s findings, Linda Bockenstedt, lead author of that study, said it’s hard to make a good determination about the behavior of Borrelia burgdorferi based solely on test tube research. “Biofilm requires a certain number of bacteria in a small space to form,” said Bockenstedt, also the Harold W. Jockers Professor of Medicine and Rheumatology at Yale School of Medicine. “Whether it would form in a human or animal infected by a tick bite is not known.”
Sapi’s research on Lyme disease is part academic pursuit and part personal passion. About 10 years ago, she became gravely ill with a disease that, while never conclusively diagnosed, carried many of the symptoms of Lyme disease. She fell ill in 2001, not long after leaving Yale University — where she was a cancer researcher — for a job at UNH. She experienced a variety of symptoms, including impaired motor skills and constant dizziness. It was so bad that she could barely walk.
Though medical tests came back inconclusive, “all signs pointed to Lyme disease.” Sapi is better now, but remnants of the illness remain. “I can overdo it very easily,” she said. “My body is not as strong as it once was.”
Shortly after that, Sapi turned her attention to Lyme disease. She hopes that her findings spark a wider interest in unlocking the mysteries of this illness. “I hope our studies inspires other studies,” she said.