UTHSC Receives Grants to Prevent Transmission of Lyme Disease

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UTHSC has been awarded $620,579 in research grants from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.The award is being used to fund the study of a wildlife vaccine that will ultimately reduce the occurrence of Lyme disease in humans.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) has been awarded $620,579 in research grants from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The award is being used to fund the study of a wildlife vaccine that will ultimately reduce the occurrence of Lyme disease in humans. The grant, which is in its fourth year at UTHSC, is part of a CDC award totaling more than $3.2 million. Lyme disease is transmitted through the bite of infected ticks and is the most common vector-borne* disease in North America and Europe. The illness presents a significant public health concern during late spring and summer months, since outdoor activities place humans at higher risk for the disease.

Maria Gomes-Solecki, DVM, assistant professor in the UTHSC Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry, is leading the CDC-funded research. The study involves the oral immunization of laboratory-reared mice through an oral bait vaccine. The vaccine will also sterilize the ticks that feed on the immunized mice.

“Our goal is to substantially reduce the incidence of Lyme disease through an inexpensive and easy way to distribute oral bait to wildlife,” said Dr. Gomes-Solecki. “In the future, the oral bait vaccine could be safely consumed by birds, squirrels, wild mice and other creatures to increase the potential of the vaccine to control Lyme disease risks,” she added.

The infectious agent in Lyme disease, Borreilia burgdorferi, is spread to humans or animals when a tick bites the skin, thus allowing the bacterium to move into the body. Lyme disease is usually indicated by a red-colored rash at the site of the tick bite and is accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and fatigue. Lyme disease is treatable with antibiotics. Left untreated, the disease can be debilitating and manifest into problems with the skin, heart, joints, eyes and nervous system.

The month of May is designated Lyme Disease Prevention Month by the American Lyme Disease Foundation, www.lyme.org, which works closely with the CDC. The CDC reveals that the number of reported Lyme disease cases is steadily increasing. Currently, there is no vaccine for humans to prevent contracting Lyme disease. The current methods of prevention are to avoid ticks, use repellents and wear protective clothing; however, these measures are often not effective. UTHSC researchers are attempting to tackle the problem by immunizing wildlife, which will also sterilize ticks that feed on these creatures.

Dr. Gomes-Solecki and her team will use OspA, a preparation of outer cell surface protein A, in the vaccine given to mice. In previous trials with mice, OspA has proven successful in fighting Lyme disease. In 1998, OspA was approved for use in humans by the Federal Drug Administration; however, the vaccine was removed from the market since its cost was not covered by insurance and because of some reports that it caused arthritic damage to a genetically vulnerable population. After an FDA and CDC investigation, there was no evidence found to support this claim. Nevertheless, the drug was still discontinued since the sale of the vaccine decreased. OspA continues to be used in studies and provides the most protection against Lyme disease with an 80 to 100 percent efficacy rate in mice, and a 75 to 80 percent efficacy rate in humans.

For more than 60 years, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been dedicated to protecting health and promoting quality of life through the prevention and control of disease, injury, and disability. The CDC is committed to programs that reduce the health and economic consequences of the leading causes of death and disability, thereby ensuring a long, productive, healthy life for all people. For more information, visit www.cdc.gov.

*vector-borne disease — a disease in which the pathogenic microorganism is transmitted from an arthropod or other agent to an animal or individual