2 new Lyme disease vaccines could mean end of debilitating illness

The days of Lyme disease may be numbered.

With ticks emerging earlier than usual this year, experts are warning of the risk of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection caused by a bite from an infected black-legged tick.

Approximately 476,000 Americans could be diagnosed with Lyme disease this year, according to US health officials. Symptoms can debilitating, including fever, chills, headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes or rashes.

A vaccine for Lyme disease is not currently available, but two scientific initiatives to fight the condition are showing promising results, with one soon to be rolled out.

Borrelia burgdorferi and, less commonly, Borrelia mayonii are the bacteria that spur Lyme disease. In the northeastern, mid-Atlantic and north-central US, Borrelia burgdorferi is spread primarily through the black-legged tick, also called the deer tick. In the Pacific Coast states, the western black-legged tick is the main culprit.

However, not all ticks carry Lyme.

Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that ticks are fond of yards, wooded areas and low-growing grasslands. Depending on the location, less than 1% to more than half of the ticks in the given area are carrying Lyme disease bacteria, which they contract via biting infected white-footed mice.

Memphis-based US Biologic aims to solve the epidemic by going straight to the source and vaccinating mice via food pellets, and studies have shown the method holds promise.

The company is “really focused” on Lyme, CEO Mason Kauffman told Times Union. “There are about 500,000 new cases each year, and most of those cases are children aged 5-10. So when they get it, they potentially have it the rest of their lives.”

Lyme disease cases nationwide have been on the rise for decades. Getty Images/iStockphoto

One study published in the journal Experimental and Applied Acarology in 2020 showed that oral vaccines deposited throughout 32 residential properties in Redding, Connecticut led to a significant decrease in infected mice, falling 24% in one year.

Another study with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Dutchess County showed a 74% decrease throughout the five-year study, per stats compiled by US Biologic.

It’s presumed that the number would be greater if food pellets were distributed for longer. Additionally, if an infected tick bites a mouse that has consumed the pellets, it will be cleared of the bacteria.

The USDA granted US Biologic a conditional license in May 2023 to distribute the food pellets through pest control companies, the company said. Now, President Chris Przybyszewski said it will be moving toward full licensure.

“Every state I’ve talked to, they understand the gravity of this disease and they understand the need for new solutions to complement everything else we’re doing,” he said.

“People need to not be afraid to go outside.”

A Memphis-based company called US Biologic aims to solve the epidemic by going straight to the source and vaccinating mice via food pellets — and studies have shown to be promising. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Meanwhile, Pfizer and French biotech company Valneva have developed a vaccine candidate — VLA15 — that’s already in Phase 3 human trials, the CDC said. 

According to a news release from Pfizer, the vaccine “has demonstrated a strong immune response and satisfactory safety profile in pre-clinical and clinical studies so far.”

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Helsinki also recently determined that human sweat contains a protein that inhibits the growth of a bacterium that causes the disease.

One-third of the population carries a genetic variant of this protein, according to study findings published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

“This protein may provide some protection from Lyme disease, and we think there are real implications here for a preventative and possibly a therapeutic based on this protein,” Michal Caspi Tal, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering and one of the senior study authors, said in a statement.

Lyme disease cases nationwide have been on the rise for decades — from 3.74 reported cases per 100,000 people in 1991 to 7.21 reported cases per 100,000 people in 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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