Several years ago after gardening in my suburban backyard, I found a deer tick attached to my hip. Then came a rash. And then I started hurting all over like I was getting the flu.
I wasn’t surprised when my nurse practitioner examined me, diagnosed Lyme, and prescribed antibiotics. I should have been lucky. I had the bite with the beast still attached, in the middle of the classic target rash. I felt like I was dying of flu-like aches and pains.
But as it turned out, I wasn’t lucky after all.
When the results of my Lyme test came back negative a few days later, she told me to stop taking the meds. Growing sicker by the hour, I pressed for more information.
She said flatly, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but your test was negative so you do not have Lyme.”
Guess what? Results of conventional blood tests for Lyme disease can be inaccurate as much as 50% of the time. Apparently she didn’t know that. (Pretty appalling, but not uncommon.)
So instead of receiving immediate treatment that would likely have taken care of the infection, I wound up bedridden with many debilitating symptoms. I lost my job and time with my kids and a relationship that meant a lot to me…and, well, basically several years of my life.
So many people lose their health to Lyme this way. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.
George Mason U. rocks!
And now there’s an awesome new development: Researchers at Virginia’s George Mason University have come up with a new, much more accurate test.
When I heard that it has just become available to doctors across the U.S. I called Dr. Lance Liotta to find out more. He’s co-director of George Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, and leads the research team.
First off, I asked how they came to focus on Lyme—it’s a telling story. A bright young high school student named Temple Douglas was working for Dr. Liotta and his colleagues over a summer.
When she saw the new technology they’d invented, she explained that her whole family was suffering with Lyme, and that there was a real need for a better test. Could they help? The researchers took up her challenge and—voilá.
What’s the deal with conventional blood tests?
It’s important to understand the limitations of the blood tests: They can only check for Lyme bacteria indirectly, by measuring antibodies responding to the infection, not the bacteria itself.
Think of it this way: When your immune system senses infection invading, it sends out these little soldiers—antibodies—that try to fight the infection and take it down.
But it takes time for them to get going. So testing done right away might miss them. That’s a serious issue, because it’s urgent that treatment start as soon as possible after a bite to prevent the bacteria from spreading.
Dr. Liotta explained another big problem with those tests: “You take a patient’s blood and incubate it with a cultured laboratory strain of Lyme bacteria that is different from all the strains out there. So someone could have a strain that doesn’t match the lab strain – and the test would miss the one they’ve got.”
“Thousands and thousands of serology tests run every day in the United States could be false negatives,” said Dr. Liotta. “Those patients don’t get treated, and as time goes on the bacteria is still present, and the patients can become ill.”
There’s a key point verified by GMU’s research, he told me: “If you give antibiotic therapy to someone with early stage disease, you can find symptoms continue in 5-20% of patients even with treatment. So one round of antibiotics might not be enough.”
The “nanotrap” catches direct evidence
The new test uses nanotechnology. I had to look that up. As the American Heritage Science Dictionary explains it, it brings research “down to a very small scale, measured in nanometers. A nanometer—a billionth of a meter—is about the size of six carbon atoms in a row.” Wow.
The researchers at George Mason have invented a technological gem called a nanotrap. Dr. Liotta describes it as an open mesh ball. Inside are chemicals that act as bait to attract a telltale marker of a particular disease.
“You can use the test for anything,” Dr. Liotta told me. “We have a grant of $500,000 to develop a test for tuberculosis. And we’re developing tests for malaria, cancer, and head trauma.”
In the case of Lyme, the researchers set the trap up to catch a protein they’ve identified as always present in all strains of Lyme bacteria. There’s no need for a needle stick and a blood sample; urine will do. (Woohoo!)
So picture a container filled with liquid containing nanotraps. When the urine sample of an infected person is added, it flows through the traps where the “bait” quickly attracts and grabs the unique marker for the Lyme bacteria.
In the clinical trial, Dr. Liotta and his colleagues found that the test was accurate in 100% of recently infected patients.
Testing patients with Lyme symptoms who have been sick a long time proves more problematic, but Dr. Liotta says researchers are seeking the truth. Perhaps one day testing will be able to confirm whether such a patient has Lyme or some other illness, so they can get properly treated.
“There’s a really big need to prevent the long-term suffering that happens when you miss proper Lyme treatment in the beginning,” Dr. Liotta told me. “What we’re doing is aimed at people in just the situation you were in. We want to focus on that because we know the doctors need it and the patients need it.”
It was great to hear that Dr. Liotta and the team will be addressing the growing concern over other illnesses transmitted by ticks, known as co-infections.
“Our overall goal is to have a whole panel of TBD (Tick Borne Disease) tests so we can differentiate them and have better diagnoses for all of them, ” he says. I can appreciate that, since I’ve been plagued by several nasty bugs besides Lyme myself.
This is a huge step forward for Lyme treatment and prevention. Thanks, Dr. Liotta and fellow scientists. Thanks, funders.
And special thanks to student Temple Douglas for starting the nanotrap ball rolling in the right direction.
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