NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — There is no effective vaccine available to prevent Lyme disease in humans, but researchers are one step closer to developing new vaccines and a hybrid approach that can deliver a one-two punch to the microbe that causes the disease and its tick carrier.
Steven Schutzer, a physician-scientist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, along with experts from academia, government and industry recently convened at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Banbury Center to identify the most promising new strategies to counteract infection. Their findings were published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.
“Countermeasures, such as vaccines, are needed to stem the growing number of cases each year,” said Schutzer, the senior author. “This is extremely important because a person can get Lyme disease more than once.”
Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium transmitted through the bite of an infected tick. The only preventative measure currently available is “guidance” for avoiding tick bites, Schutzer said. “The ineffectiveness of this strategy is suggested by the estimated 300,000 diagnosed cases of Lyme disease that occur annually in the United States, along with more than 100,000 in Europe.”
Early diagnosis and treatment can combat the infection. However, if left untreated, there is increased risk for the infection to spread to the brain, heart and joints. Even those who have been successfully diagnosed and treated can be reinfected if bitten again.
“We can envision the development of hybrid vaccine strategies targeted both to the offending microbe and to its tick carrier to prevent Lyme disease,” said lead author Maria Gomes-Solecki, a researcher at the University of Tennessee. “It is a two-prong approach.”
In addition to describing new scientific approaches, the authors considered the societal implications of a new vaccine. “Lyme disease vaccination is an individual’s personal choice,” Schutzer said. “The concept of personal immunization against a noncontagious disease versus widespread vaccination to prevent the spread of a contagious infection should be part of public education and discussion.”
Rebecca Leshan, executive director of the Banbury Center, notes that a prior meeting on improved diagnostics has already had major effects, with FDA approval of a number of tests that bring clarity to the field. Outcomes from the most recent meetings, she said, continue to set the right course of action.
“Lyme disease has been a recurring topic for our meetings, and we’re now seeing significant outcomes from those discussions,” she said. “I expect the concepts laid out in the current paper will also have a real impact and help people at risk for Lyme disease.”
The current paper was developed after the three-day meeting chaired by Schutzer of Rutgers University and Erol Fikrig of Yale University.