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New treatment could kill Lyme bacteria in the wild — before the tick bites you

Adult deer tick
Photo by Scott Bauer., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Adult deer tick

Over the last 20 years, Lyme disease has changed the way many people look at a simple walk in the woods. What if Lyme could be prevented — not by hypervigilance, but by treating the wild animal population the way we do with rabies?

CAI’s Jennette Barnes talked with Kim Lewis, professor of biology at Northeastern University, about that and other new developments in the fight against Lyme disease.

Barnes: So you’ve learned that this compound, hygromycin A, might be useful as a human antibiotic for Lyme disease. Why were you looking for something different from what’s being used today?

Lewis: Yeah, good question. There are several reasons for that. … We know that the gut microbiome, symbiants that live in our gut, are very important in many aspects of health and disease, and broad spectrum antibiotics like, doxycycline or amoxicillin that are used to treat Lyme disease, they wreck your microbiome, and it takes a while to restore it. That restoration is imperfect, and it's especially harmful to children. So the logic in the field as a whole is to try to move away from broad spectrum antibiotics when disease is caused by one pathogen. … But there was another reason for me. We suspected that changes in the microbiome may be linked to a very unpleasant consequence of having acute Lyme disease, which is the chronic Lyme.

Barnes: Aha, OK. And in your paper in the journal Cell, you discuss this kind of head-turning idea, that this could actually be used in baits to eliminate the Lyme spirochete in mice and then potentially eliminate it in the natural environment. Talk about that.

Lewis: Yes, we were thinking about whether Lyme disease is sort of a prime example of a disease that can be eradicated. … And there’s been a very interesting experiment performed about 10 years ago by a group from CDC, Centers for Disease Control. And so they took doxycycline, which is the standard of care antibiotic for Lyme disease, put it in a bait and spread that bait in a small area in New Jersey. And what that resulted in is that the mice were cleared of carrying Borrelia (Lyme) infection, and so were the ticks. And the main transmitter of the disease is actually in mice, so if you can, you know — if you can clear the infection from mice, then you interrupt the chain of transmission. And you essentially eradicate the pathogen from the environment. So now, you're not going to spread doxycycline over America, right? It is a broad spectrum antibiotic. It'll kill other bacteria. It will cause resistance development. It's not a practical solution for the problem. But we felt that a selective antibiotic that only kills the spirochete may be a realistic option for this approach. And so I’m collaborating with Sam Telford and Linden Hu from Tufts University, experts in environmental treatments and Lyme disease. We have tested this idea first in the labs. We put hygromycin A into baits and fed it to mice, and it clears the infection very nicely, including the white-footed mice that transmit Lyme disease in the wild. So, we are gearing up to do a field trial next year. And if that works, then we will move on to develop this as an environmental intervention.

Barnes: Where will the field trial be?

Lewis: Oh, that I'm not going to tell you because — I will tell you that if and when it's going to be successful.

Barnes: All right. Professor Kim Lewis of Northeastern University, thank you so much for joining us.

Lewis: Thank you. My pleasure.

Barnes: Dr. Lewis says a product to treat mice for Lyme in the wild could be ready in as little as two or three years. As for the work on a selective human antibiotic for Lyme, that’s more involved. Lewis is a scientific advisor to a company called Flightpath that’s developing a human product for clinical trials.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.