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Rutgers Scientists Help to Identify New Way to Test for Lyme Disease

More work to be done for federal approval but new technique promises earlier detection and, therefore, better chance of avoiding serious long-term effects

Tick for Lyme disease
Credit: Creative Commons

A team of researchers — including scientists from Rutgers University — has discovered a way to identify Lyme disease weeks earlier than current tests allow. It’s a development that eventually could help thousands of Garden State residents to start treatment sooner and better avoid the long-term effects of the disease.

Experts from Rutgers Biomedical and Health Scientists worked with researchers from Harvard and Yale universities, federal agencies and other institutions on a technique to quickly, and more effectively, detect active Lyme disease infections. Their findings were published yesterday in Clinical Infectious Diseases, an academic journal. The process still requires further development and federal approval.

The current test, developed more than two decades ago, can take up to three weeks to produce results and only shows if a person has been exposed to Lyme, as opposed to having been infected. Triggered by a bite from an infected deer tick, the disease can cause symptoms that range from rashes and headaches to brain swelling, mental confusion and lifelong joint pain.

“These direct tests are needed because you can get Lyme disease more than once, features are often non-diagnostic and the current standard FDA-approved tests cannot distinguish an active, ongoing infection from a past cured one,” said Steven Schutzer, a physician-scientist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and a lead author of the study.

‘The problem is worsening’

“The problem is worsening because Lyme disease has increased in numbers to 300,000 per year in the United States and is spreading across the country and world,” he added.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease in North America has grown more than 80 percent between 2004 and 2016, when more than 36,000 cases were reported nationwide. (Some suggest that climate change has contributed to this growth.) But the reported cases may represent only one in ten of the actual cases, according to the agency.

The epicenter of the disease is now southern New England and the northern part of the Mid-Atlantic, the CDC’s data shows, with New Jersey having the second-highest diagnoses in recent years, after Pennsylvania. State reports show cases have ticked up from fewer than 3,800 in 2013 to more than 5,000 last year; more than 2,700 have been diagnosed so far this year, as of early October.

As many as eight in ten people infected with Lyme disease will develop a circular rash, almost like a bulls-eye, around the site of the tick bite. Usually this appears within days, but it may take several weeks. They may also experience headache, stiff neck and muscles, aches and joint pain.

Just don’t get bitten by a tick…

Lyme disease deer tick
Credit: Creative Commons

To protect against the infection, the state Department of Health and other public health agencies encourage residents to avoid getting bitten by ticks to begin with. They urge people to use caution when moving through woodlands, meadows, beach grass, and other outdoor areas popular with deer ticks; to wear protective clothing and use bug spray; and to conduct rigorous tick-checks when back inside.

But once bitten, diagnosing any infection and getting treated are important, experts agree, and the sooner the better. “If left untreated, infected persons may develop arthritis, nervous system problems, and heart problems. If treated early, antibiotic therapy is generally effective,” the DOH noted.

That need for quick action — and the fact that not all cases involve a rash — underscore the importance of a quicker, more accurate test to screen for the disease, the scientists said. The new test is able to detect the presence of the actual Lyme disease bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi; the current process, approved in 1994, identifies antibodies created by the body in response to an infection, even if the infection came years ago and has already been treated.

“It will not be surprising to see direct tests for Lyme disease join the growing list of FDA-approved direct tests for other bacterial, fungal and viral infections that include Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Candida, influenza, HIV, herpes and hepatitis, among others,” said Schutzer.

He developed the paper with his colleagues following a conference of regional experts at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a nonprofit research center that has focused on the disease.

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