New Lyme Disease Test Could Help Identify Illness Sooner

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April 6, 2022 – A new test could help doctors detect sooner, which could help people receive more effective treatment, according to a new study published in TheJournal of Clinical Investigation.

Antibodies that form in response to an infection from the bite of a Lyme-infected tick could help pinpoint whether someone might have the illness.

“There are real problem areas in the current tests that impact a lot of people,” Peter Gwynne, PhD, a microbiologist at Tufts University who led the research, , headache, fatigue, and a “bull’s-eye” skin rash. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system, according to the CDC. The disease is most often diagnosed based on symptoms such as the characteristic rash and the possibility of exposure to infected . Most cases can be treated with antibiotics.

Current tests for Lyme disease identify the antibodies that the body produces in response to an infection, but those antibodies can take weeks to appear. Tests can miss half of the positive cases in the first or second week and may only identify 85% of infections after a month, Gwynne told the newspaper.

Antibodies can also remain in the body after Lyme disease has been cleared. When a patient has ongoing symptoms after a previous infection, doctors are often unable to tell whether they still have the previous infection, a reinfection, or a different illness altogether, the newspaper reported.

In the recent study, Gwynne and colleagues found that the Lyme bacteria acquired fats from their surroundings and placed those fats on the bacteria’s surface. The fats – called phospholipids – create an immune response in people and animals.

In addition, the research team found, the antibodies produced in response to the phospholipids are different than the ones that typical Lyme disease tests find. They may also show up earlier after an infection.

“We know the earlier you treat, the more likely you are to treat successfully,” Gwynne said. “Somewhere between 10-20% of people continue to have symptoms after they’ve been treated. That’s less likely to happen if you are treated early.”

The research team also found that the body appears to clear the fat-related antibodies – known as autoantibodies – more quickly. That could potentially help scientists know how effective a treatment has been or if someone has become reinfected.

Gwynne and colleagues have a patent pending for the technique. Gwynne is raising $1 million to continue the work, aiming to compare a new test to current tests. If successful, the research team hopes a diagnostic testing company could develop a commercially available version within a couple of years.

“Rather than replacing the current test, maybe its role is to supplement the test,” Gwynne said. “We need to find the capability of this test and how it fits into the current testing scheme.”