Singer Avril Lavigne recently talked publicly about how she was bedridden for five months due to Lyme disease and thought she “was dying” because she couldn’t eat, talk or move.By studying the real-time immune response to the bacteria that causes the disease, a University of Toledo researcher is hoping to help create better treatments so that fewer people have to experience what the songstress did.
“What we are trying to figure out is what ‘tricks’ that the bacteria play so that our immune response can’t clear the infection on its own,” said Dr. Mark Wooten, UT associate professor of microbiology and immunology. “If we figure that out, we will have a better idea of what type of vaccine is needed to prevent this disease, which can be quite debilitating in some patients.”
Previously, when the bacteria was injected into mice, researchers were limited on what they could see and when. Wooten came up with the idea to make the bacteria fluorescent (glow green) so it could be studied in real-time using a high-tech multiphoton microscope.
Wooten uses special mouse strains with fluorescent immune cells, injecting them with the Lyme disease-causing bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, which is also fluorescent. He then uses high-powered microscopy to observe the fluorescent bacteria in the skin of the living mice to see how they interact with the different immune cells.
Initial findings show that the immune system starts to fight the bacteria, but backs down after a few days, even though large numbers of the bacteria remain. Figuring out why the immune system starts and then stops is crucial to finding a way to treat those infected by Lyme disease, the No. 1 vector-borne disease in the United States that sees an increase this time of year during tick season.
“For the first time we are seeing what the bacteria does in the mice and how the immune cells respond to them,” Wooten said. “We can see where the deficiencies are, which in return allows us to figure out how to improve the immune response in humans.”
Wooten said people getting bitten by an infected tick is a growing problem in the Midwest and Northeast because humans are increasingly living in close proximity to the animals, such as deer, that carry the bacteria.
“Not only are the numbers in the New England states continuing to rise,” he said, “but the bacteria now can be found throughout much of Ohio.”
More than 300,000 cases are believed to occur each year; however, it is estimated that only 10 percent to 20 percent of Lyme disease cases are actually reported.
“Our latest findings indicate that the bacteria can literally outrun our immune cells within the host,” Wooten said. “We figured they would get in the skin and go hide from our immune response. Actually, we are finding that they don’t hide. They continue to move for months or years, and our immune system isn’t clearing them. Why is that? That is what we hope to unravel.”