Lyme disease is currently the fastest growing vector-borne disease in the US, according to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Though most common in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, Lyme disease cases have been identified in every state.
“Current estimates say that approximately 300,000 people come down with Lyme disease every year, and that’s probably an underestimate,” said Dr. Joel Tabb, president and co-founder of Ionica Sciences in Weill Hall’s McGovern Center at Cornell.
Dr. Tabb’s team at Ionica Sciences has developed a new and improved diagnostic test for Lyme disease. Unlike the current standard tests, that focus on the body’s immune response, Tabb’s test focuses on the disease causing bacteria itself and should be on the market by 2020.
According to the CDC, lyme disease is carried in the form of bacteria on blacklegged ticks. Once a tick is embedded in a host organism, the disease is transferred within 36 to 48 hours while the tick remains attached. In most cases, initial symptoms include a red-ringed rash, often called a bull’s-eye rash. But for some people, the rash is never discovered or never even appears.
“The problem is that many people miss the rash and they get symptoms, often flu-like symptoms, aches, pains, swollen joints and severe headaches. Those come within a week after you’ve been bitten. And if you were to take a blood test at that point, you’d likely test negative,” Tabb said.
The current Lyme disease tests analyze the body’s response to the infection, as indicated by the buildup of antibodies. For this test to be effective you must wait 4-6 weeks until enough antibodies build up in your blood to test positive for Lyme disease.
According to Tabb, current tests are even more troublesome for those that don’t develop an immune response to the disease.
“Either you’re immune-compromised, you’ve got autoimmune problems or the bacteria itself is great at hiding from your immune system and you may not respond well,” Tabb said. “Those people are typically false-negatives, and as many as 40-50 percent of the people who take the test come back false-negative.”
“Our test is different because we are testing for a protein associated with the bacteria,” Tabb said. “Because [the bacteria] doesn’t circulate through the bloodstream, it is hard to detect by standard methods, but [the bacteria] does release proteins into the blood… [which] we will be able to detect.”
According to Tabb, you either have both the protein and Lyme disease or you have neither — it doesn’t require waiting around for the body to respond to the disease first.
Ionica Science’s test is also beneficial in the case of a second exposure. If you were to contract Lyme disease again, standard testing would be a poor indicator since the body will always contain the same antibodies it created in response to the first exposure to the disease.
Ionica Science’s test will detect the disease each time it is in the body, since the proteins reside in the bloodstream only while the disease is present.
Once the disease is detected, antibiotics can be given to the infected person and the disease normally goes away quickly. If Lyme disease is not detected quickly, however, the symptoms become more severe. “The longer you go without antibiotics the harder it is to treat,” Tabb said.
According to Tabb, in the case of late-stage Lyme disease symptoms can be neurological, muscular or cardiovascular, such as facial palsy — drooping on one or both sides of the face — or heart palpitations.
“[Those infected] may also undergo a constellation of symptoms that doesn’t fit one disease… One of the worst symptoms is what they call brain fog, where you literally feel like you’re swimming through pea soup all day long,” Tabb said.
With ticks spreading like the plague, a relatively ineffective Lyme disease test and no known vaccine for Lyme disease, our relationship with ticks seem bleak. But Ionica Sciences hopes to have their new test available by the next tick season.
“We have taken it from the point of an idea to initial proof of concept to now doing clinical studies, and we hope to be able to have a test on the market for people to use by the end of 2020,” Tabb said.
In the meantime, enjoy a much-needed tick-less winter and keep up the tick checks come next spring when the seed-sized critters — poppy seed-sized for nymphs and sesame seed-sized for adults — return.