Antibody shows promise vs. Lyme disease

The state’s $1 million investment toward finding a way to prevent ticks from spreading Lyme disease is paying off, a UMass Medical School researcher said last week, and an additional investment could move an antibody proven in labs to protect mice against Lyme closer to a human trial.

As Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial infection that can cause neurological problems if left untreated, has spread in both the number of cases and affected geography, Dr. Mark Klempner from the MassBiologics division of UMass Medical School has been leading a team to develop “a novel approach” to preventing the disease.

“It’s really been a spreading, rising tide of cases that are concerning,” he said, noting that the 35,000 to 40,000 reported annual cases of Lyme disease in the United States is “very underreported” and is likely closer to 300,000 annual cases. Since the mid-1990s, he said, the ticks that can carry Lyme disease have increased in concentration and spread from New England and the mid-Atlantic to the upper Midwest.

Klempner’s team secured a $1 million appropriation in the current state budget and, paired with federal grants from the National Institutes of Health, developed a “pre-exposure prophylaxis” in which antibodies injected into a human could block the release of the Lyme bacteria if the human is bitten by an infected tick.

“It’s really based on some very simple notion that the bacteria, before it comes to you, is stuck in the gut of the tick” and must make a complex trip through the tick before it can infect a human, he said Thursday at a briefing. “Our approach is to take advantage of this very complicated pathway for the bacteria to get out of the tick and into you ... a medicine that will circulate in you that when the tick drinks it, the blood will contain something that will kill the bacteria in the midgut or for sure prevent it from getting out of the gut so that none of this can happen.”

In the most optimistic scenario, Klempner said, the treatment could be available in about three-and-a-half years.