A vaccine is in the works for Lyme disease, a debilitating illness that is spread by ticks and affects people across the U.S.
300 people living in Austria and Germany took part in phase 1 and 2 clinical trials for the vaccine, the results of which were recently published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
What makes this vaccine especially powerful is that it works on all North American strains of Borrelia, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. The vaccine triggers a healthy immune response with no major side effects.
The vaccine used in the trials was developed by researchers at Stony Brook University in New York, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Baxter International Inc., a U.S.-based company.
Flu-Like Symptoms Often Go Untreated
Dr. Benjamin Luft, a professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, told Healthline that Lyme disease could affect just about anyone. “If you garden, take a walk in the park, or go to the beach, you're at risk for getting Lyme disease because you get it from doing everyday activities.”
Because the symptoms often resemble those of flu or other illnesses, Lyme disease regularly goes untreated as people believe it to be nothing serious. Lyme disease usually manifests in the form of a skin lesion accompanied by headache, fever, and fatigue. Sometimes it can also lead to nervous system problems, such as facial palsy, meningitis, and encephalitis. Heart problems and joint pain have also been reported.
Luft has already developed many treatments for Lyme disease, and has found that many patients don't respond well to antibiotics.
He blames the hardiness of Borrelia for the disease's persistence.
“First, it lives in a tick, and you can imagine what life inside the tick must be,” said Luft. “It's an ambient environment with not a lot of nutrition, yet it can sit there for literally years and years. Then it goes into the host, causes infection and, again, can sit there and persist for a long period of time.”
He said it's important to treat the disease early or, in the case of a vaccine, prevent it entirely.
A spokesman for Baxter told Healthline that a larger phase 2 trial is needed and that phase 3 drug trials have not yet been finalized.
Engineering by Nature
Luft told Healthline that the key to creating the vaccine was to bioengineer a protein not found in nature. Using the scaffolding of a protein known as OspA, which is found on Borrelia's outer surface when it lives in ticks, the scientists created a new fusion protein called a chimera.
The chimera contains proteins from a wide range of Borrelia bacteria, making the vaccine effective against many different strains.
Luft, Brookhaven, and Baxter have all been working toward a Lyme disease vaccine for many years. Luft's work goes back to the early 1990s, when he collaborated with biologist John Dunn at Brookhaven. Dunn passed away last year.
'A Real Labor of Love'
F. William Studier, a senior biophysicist at Brookhaven, praised Dunn's work, crediting Dunn for setting the stage for this major breakthrough. Dunn became interested in Lyme disease in the 1990s, when a high school student suggested to him that viruses that attack bacteria, called phages, could kill Borrelia, Studier said.
Although that hypothesis went nowhere, Dunn began to map out the genetic sequence of a common form of Borrelia that causes Lyme disease. “There was a lot of basic research by John (Dunn) and Ben (Luft) to get to the point where they could get something they thought would be a rather broad spectrum vaccine,” Studier said.
Luft said that he wishes Dunn could be here to see the fruits of his labor. “John Dunn was a good friend and an extraordinary scientist. This was a real labor of love by him to get to this. He knew this would be useful for man.”