Scientists hope to unravel mystery of how Borrelia burgdorferi causes Lyme disease

Published on October 29, 2012 at 2:32 AM · No Comments

Investigators at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) have accelerated the search for the bacterial genes that make the Lyme disease bacterium so invasive and persistent. The discovery could advance the diagnosis and treatment of this disease, which affects an estimated 30,000 Americans each year.

The researchers have developed a new technique that allowed them to test 15 times more bacterial genes than had been evaluated in the previous 30 years to ascertain their roles in infection. Findings appeared Oct. 25 in the journal The Public Library of Science ONE (PLOS ONE), an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication.

Scientists hope to use this information to unravel the mystery of how the spiral-shaped bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi causes Lyme disease. Ticks carry the bacterium and transfer it to animals and humans when the tiny spider-like creatures bite. The Lyme disease microorganism was discovered in 1981.

"We believe that this will be one of the most significant publications in Lyme disease in the next several years. This global approach will help 'move the field forward' and also serve as a model for other pathogens with similar properties," said Steven Norris, Ph.D., the study's senior author and the vice chair for research in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the UTHealth Medical School.

The bacterium can invade almost any tissue in humans or animals and trigger an infection that lasts from months to years. Its symptoms include a reddish rash that often resembles a bull's eye and flu-like symptoms. The disease can lead to nervous system problems, joint inflammation and heart abnormalities. Most instances of Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics.

"Our long-term goals are to screen, identify and characterize the virulence determinants of the Lyme disease bacterium and thereby dissect the mechanism of pathogenesis in mammals and ticks," said Tao Lin, D,V.M., the study's lead author and assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the UTHealth Medical School. "With this information, we will have a clearer picture about the virulence determinants and virulence factors for this fascinating microorganism and the mechanism of pathogenesis behind this unique, invasive, persistent pathogen."

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