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WVU Researchers Tackle Lyme Disease As Climate Change Expands Its Reach

Black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, can carry Lyme disease.
Black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, can carry Lyme disease.

Researchers at West Virginia University have received a nearly $2 million federal grant to develop a vaccine for the tick borne illness Lyme disease.

The infusion of research dollars comes as cases of the bacterial infection, spread through the bite of an infected tick, are on the rise nationwide and in West Virginia.

Originally thought to be found primarily in colder, northern regions, today Lyme disease affects an estimated 300,000 people nationwide. In recent years reported cases in West Virginia have risen from 35 in 2000 to nearly 700 in 2018, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency now categorizes West Virginia as one of 14 states with a “high incidence” of the disease.

For many people, symptoms look like a bad cold or flu, sometimes accompanied by a bull’s-eye rash. If caught early, it can be treated with antibiotics. However, some who are infected with Lyme are left with devastating long-term health problems such as arthritis, meningitis and inflammation of the heart and brain.

“It may not have the high fatality rates, but it has a serious drain on the way people live their lives and contribute to society,” said Timothy Driscoll, an assistant biology professor and head of the Vector-Borne Disease Laboratory at West Virginia University.

The five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is being led by Mariette Barbier, assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology.

The team is focusing on developing a vaccine that would protect against the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, called Borrelia. The team is also approaching a Lyme vaccine differently than the way most vaccines are developed.

“Rather than taking the whole pathogen, and injecting it, what we're asking is ‘what are the most important antigens that our immune system recognizes ... and [we’ll] just use those,” Barbier said.

Climate Connection

Experts say climate change is playing a role in the expansion of Lyme disease. Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, has studied ticks for about three decades. He said Lyme disease is spreading across the country, in part because of a warming climate.

“As the climate warms, the length of the warm period of the year increases,” Ostfeld said. “So, you get more frost-free days in the fall and in the spring, and that looks like it's important in giving the ticks a greater chance to find hosts, animal hosts, like mice and chipmunks.”

But it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. Human expansion into habitat that was once wild increases the changes people will encounter tick-carrying creatures. Ostfeld said small mammals that are often tick carriers also survive well in our new strip malls and suburbs.

“And they are crucial in the proliferation of Lyme disease because they support tick population growth, and they support tick infection,” he said.

Vaccine development could take upwards of 10 years. There are other Lyme vaccine candidates in development, but as the range of Lyme disease grows, Driscoll said so too has the need for a preventative measure like a vaccine.

“As its range has increased, and we've seen it coming into West Virginia, we want to try to cut it off at the pass and see if we can not get knocked back,” he said.

If the WVU vaccine is shown to work in modeling, the team will work with potential commercial partners to put it through clinical trials, and eventually on the market.


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