Linden Hu and Colleagues Work to Stop Lyme Disease
Image: CDC/Claudia Molins
As people weary of being cooped up during a pandemic winter look forward to a summer outside, residents across the northeastern United States are once again confronted with a familiar virulent pathogen lurking in the woods and fields. Unlike coronavirus, however, this dangerous microorganism doesn’t float through the air—it enters the body through the bite of a tick.
Lyme disease has been a constant scourge since it was identified five decades ago on the Connecticut coastline, before spreading across the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi (and its cousin Borrelia mayonii), the disease has long baffled scientists with its strangely stealthy manifestations.
While Lyme can sometimes be diagnosed early from its telltale bullseye-shaped rash, it often goes unnoticed for weeks in a person before it starts leading to complications including arthritis and—in severe cases—attacks on heart and brain tissue. While it can often be resolved with antibiotics, some 10 to 20 percent of patients see infections persist, with fatigue, joint pain, and mental impairment lasting months and even years. Sometimes doctors who treat such long-suffering patients aren’t even able to definitively pinpoint Lyme as the cause. All of those complications make the mission of the new Tufts Lyme Disease Initiative even bolder: “Eliminate Lyme Disease by 2030.”
“Many of our approaches are currently designed to see if we can get rid of Lyme disease at its source,” said physician Linden Hu, the Paul and Elaine Chervinsky Professor of Immunology at Tufts University School of Medicine and one of the initiative’s two co-directors. That means bringing together a multidisciplinary team of scientists who can deal with all aspects of the disease, from animal behavior to human health. “Our work spans a range that includes ecology, epidemiology, population health, genetics, and clinical intervention,” said Sam Telford, an epidemiology professor at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and a board member of the initiative.
If any institution can unravel the intertwined mysteries of Lyme, it is Tufts, which has been on the forefront of study and treatment of the disease for nearly half a century. Among the pioneers who first identified Lyme disease in the mid-1970s were David Snydman, an infectious disease specialist at the Centers for Disease Control, and Allen Steere, a rheumatoid physician at Yale University, who believed that such illnesses could be traced back to bacterial infection. When a cluster of several dozen supposed cases of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis broke out in Lyme, Connecticut, they were skeptical of the diagnosis, believing it may have been caused by a pathogen instead. Eventually, they were among the scientists who helped identify the tick-borne Borrelia as the cause of the disease.
This is an excerpt from a story written by Michael Blanding that appeared in Tufts Now.