Over at the Lyme and Tick-borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia University, a team of researchers is working to identify the root causes of persistent symptoms. Director Dr. Brian Fallon cites persistent infection, an abnormally heightened immune response, and “neural activation on overdrive” as potentials.
Here’s what’s wild: We know that Lyme disease can linger in the body in strange new forms. Research on mice, dogs, monkeys, and, yes, humans demonstrates that these hardy bugs can hang around and even change shape under duress. According to a 2014 Hopkins study, doxycycline and amoxicillin kill the bacteria when active and replicating but have little effect against “persisters.” Hopkins researchers have just come out with a new test that rapidly screens thousands of FDA-approved drugs to see which work best on persistent Lyme bacteria. Using this technology, they have already discovered antibiotics that show promise in fighting lingering infections.
Given the challenges in preventing and treating Lyme, though, a vaccine may be the best hope for quashing the disease—but a human vaccine might be a ways off. Some scientists are developing a vaccine to hide in food left outside: a Trojan-horse approach to inoculating animal carriers, like mice. Then there are the research groups working on tick vaccines to make the insects stop feeding on humans and drop off, or to block transmission from the bug to its human host.
Dr. Richard Marconi, of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has been working on a vaccine for Lyme since 2006 and recently released a canine version called VANGUARD crLyme. “Lyme is not caused by a single type of bacteria—it’s multiple species,” he says. “There are not only diverse strains [of the bacteria] but also diverse species. An efficient vaccine has to protect about all the versions.” Using what he calls chimetrope technology, Marconi has fused pieces of the bacteria’s differing protein coatings together to form an entirely new protein to inoculate against many strains.
Until the official recommendations for Lyme disease diagnosis and treatment evolve, thousands of patients who don’t fit the CDC’s criteria for the illness are left out in the cold. Under intense scrutiny, doctors are less and less willing to go above and beyond these criteria. For now, hope lies in educating the public and physicians around the country. While the globe scrambles to deal with Zika, Lyme remains mired in a 40-year controversy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the two sides of the Lyme wars will reach a peace agreement anytime soon.