Scientists with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have made a groundbreaking discovery in the study of Borrelia burgdorferi, the spiral-shaped bacteria that cause Lyme disease.
The study, “Virulence of the Lyme disease spirochete before and after the tick bloodmeal: a quantitative assessment” was first reported by Popular Science in TICKS ARE MORE LIKELY TO TRANSMIT LYME DISEASE AFTER SUCKING YOUR BLOOD, by Alexandra Ossola. The NIAID scientists proved, shockingly, that people’s negligence may be unwittingly harming the mouse population.
“We discovered that due to variations of surface protein expression, spirochetes are able to cause disease only after they have already inhabited a host through a tick’s initial blood meal,” said one of the scientists. “Ticks that feed on asymptomatic humans or those whose only symptom is an arthritic knee, ingest spirochetes that have been “primed” to become suddenly super-virulent when transferred to a new host–usually an innocent little mouse.”
The NIH warned that people are too careless when checking themselves for ticks, and urged diligence along with adopting a buddy system to examine every square centimeter of skin for even the most minute of tick nymphs. “You can’t get a very good look in your own butt crack, now, can you?” Suggested a CDC representative who was privy to the study results.
“Ticks that are allowed to feed on humans and then escape to spread disease among mice are a grave threat to the rodent population. We, as human beings, have a responsibility to nature to break the cycle of Lyme disease, and save the mice,” the representative added.
The scientists noted that the situation is extremely urgent, since it has been know at least since 1951 that a single spirochete can cause disease in rats, close relatives of the endangered mice. They added that similar experiments on humans would be helpful to find novel treatments for the mice, because Lyme disease in humans has tended to present only as asymptomatic since the Dearborn conference in 1994.
Attempts to reach famous Lyme expert Alan Barbour for comment were unsuccessful, however, his patent 6,719,983 appears to support the notion that the mice population could be in serious danger from Lyme disease. His patent states:
“An important aspect of the invention is the recognition that Borrelia VMP-like sequences recombine at the vls site, with the result that antigenic variation is virtually limitless. Multiclonal populations therefore can exist in an infected patient so that immunological defenses are severely tested if not totally overwhelmed.”
The NIH agreed, saying, “What we mean by ‘overwhelmed’ is immunosuppression. And in mice, that generally presents as a chronic fatiguing illness, with neurological involvement. It can be life-threatening. Therefore, we must do everything in our power to ensure that no innocent mouse is infected by even a single human-primed spirochete.”
The scientists were optimistic that with further publicly funded research, a novel vaccine candidate will be identified for this itty bitty but extremely vulnerable population.