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Lyme Disease

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Lyme Disease Research in NIAID Labs

Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, was first isolated in 1982 by Willy Burgdorfer, Ph.D., a zoologist and microbiologist at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana. Today, four NIAID laboratories, including three at RML, continue to study Lyme disease in hopes of developing new treatments, diagnostics, and prevention strategies against the disease.

Laboratory of Clinical Infectious Diseases

Clinical Studies Unit

Adriana Marques, M.D., leads a research program that aims to advance scientific knowledge of Lyme disease and to translate these advances into clinical practice. Dr. Marques and her team study patients with Lyme disease to improve understanding of the laboratory diagnosis, clinical manifestations, and immunological responses associated with B. burgdorferi infection.

The Clinical Studies Unit also investigates the cause of Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI), in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STARI is a rash similar to that of Lyme disease and occurs in people residing in the southeastern and south-central United States. It is associated with the bite of the lone star tick.

Read more information about the Clinical Studies Unit.

Participate in Lyme disease and STARI studies at NIAID.

Laboratory of Zoonotic Pathogens

Medical Entomology Section

Tom Schwan, Ph.D., leads a program that investigates bacterial pathogens transmitted by blood-feeding ticks. It studies the Lyme disease spirochete, B. burgdorferi, and a relapsing fever spirochete, B. hermsii, in live colonies of ticks to elucidate factors that contribute to the infection of these bacteria in ticks and to their biological transmission when ticks feed.

Major areas of research include:

  • Adaptations of Borrelia spirochetes in ticks
  • Genetic diversity of Lyme disease and relapsing fever spirochetes
  • Development of better serological tests for human spirochetal infection
  • Genomic studies of relapsing fever spirochetes
  • Elucidation of geographic areas of risk for relapsing fever

Read more information about the Medical Entomology Section.

Gene Regulation Section

Frank Gherardini, Ph.D., oversees research programs looking at the physiology, biochemistry, gene regulation, and pathogenesis of B. burgdorferi. This infectious agent faces several environmental and immunological challenges during its infective cycle and must adapt by altering, or regulating, gene expression.

Analysis of the B. burgdorferi genome has revealed that there are very few known regulatory proteins in this bacterium. This suggests that, compared to other well-characterized pathogenic bacterial systems, the global regulatory systems operating in B. burgdorferi are relatively simple. Clearly, these systems are required for B. burgdorferi to adapt as it encounters very different environments during transfer from an animal reservoir to the tick and then to a human host.

Read more information about the Gene Regulation Section.

Molecular Genetics Section

Patricia Rosa, Ph.D., leads a research program that seeks to elucidate the underlying mechanisms of adaptation and variation in B. burgdorferi and the roles of these mechanisms in the infectious cycle of the bacteria.

The following is known about the infectious cycle of B. burgdorferi:

  • B. burgdorferi spirochetes persist in a latent state in midguts of infected ticks for many months.
  • Spirochetes multiply and efficiently move to the salivary glands after a tick attaches to a mammalian host and ingests a blood meal.
  • B. burgdorferi is then transmitted via tick saliva and remains in the mammalian skin for several days before dissemination via the bloodstream. Spirochetes persist in low numbers in infected mammals, yet are efficiently acquired by feeding ticks following attachment.

This cycle suggests that B. burgdorferi responds to environmental cues to adapt to and move between the tick vector and mammalian host. Recent experiments document modulation of spirochetal outer-surface proteins in response to environmental conditions and reinforce this hypothesis.

Read more information about the Molecular Genetics Section.

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Last Updated March 08, 2011