From the Northeast to the Midwest and beyond, it’s high season for Lyme disease. An estimated 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with the spreading, tickborne disease every year. Most can be successfully treated with antibiotics, but for some, symptoms persist for months and even years — pain, fatigue, arthritis.
For me, Lyme disease news tends to range from horrifying — stories of insidious, life-ruining symptoms — to just depressing, like recent speculation that New England’s massive snowfall this winter may have insulated ticks and helped them survive.
So, though it’s still extremely early research, I was gladdened by a report just out from Northeastern University that a prominent germ-fighting scientist may have found a new way to kill off Lyme disease bacteria even when it persists after antibiotics. In test tubes, at least.
Prof. Kim Lewis, chief of Northeastern’s Antimicrobial Discovery Center, made a big splash just this January in the journal Nature with the discovery of a potent new antibiotic.
Now, he reports finding not a new compound but a new anti-Lyme timing regime for dosing of antibiotics.
“We decided, ‘OK, let’s look at, what are the potential vulnerabilities of this seemingly invincible pathogen?” he says. “It has all these strengths, but what are its vulnerabilities?”
That powerful pathogen is Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme disease bacterium. Until recently, Lewis did not include it in his research repertoire. But a couple of years ago, he was invited to a conference on Lyme disease, and unlike his usual scientific gatherings, it included some long-suffering patients.
“That probably was a tipping point,” he says, “that suggested to me that we should really get into this, and maybe try to do something.”
Lewis had long researched other hard-to-eradicate infections. “What we found, and published over the years,” he says, “is that in chronic infections, you have a small subpopulation of dormant, spore-like cells — these are called persisters,” he says. “So when antibiotics kill off the regular cells, persisters survive to live another day.”
“Of course, the word of caution is, this was in the test tube. It has not been tested in animals, nor has it, obviously, been tested in humans.”
Global Lyme Alliance
There’s long been debate about whether the long-lasting symptoms that some Lyme patients experience could stem from Borrelia persisters, somehow hiding out in the body. Lewis had seen how latent tuberculosis could lie low. He suspected Lyme disease might be similar, and decided to look at persisters.
His research team attacked some Borrelia with antibiotics and then waited…and waited…a very long time in the world of bacteria — three weeks. They found that with time, regular cells were killed but persisters remained completely intact.
“That was expected,” Lewis says. “Also satisfying, that this may be an important culprit explaining at least part of the difficulty of treating Lyme disease.
Once he’d homed in on the persisters, Lewis wanted, naturally, to obliterate them. His team tried several compounds that had worked on persisters in other bacteria — in staph, for example, and E. coli — but with no luck. Continue reading