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New, faster test for Lyme disease developed

Lyme disease is difficult to detect until the symptoms — which arise due to the transfer of the pathogenic bacteria into the human blood stream following a tick bite — become manifest. Conventional tests often indicate no presence of the bacterium in the early stages, which leads to the risk of misdiagnosis or the incorrect treatment being administered. This is because current tests look for signs of an immunological reaction in people (which take time to appear); the new method looks for the presence of the pathogen itself.

A new technique, which is still at the experimental stage, overcomes this. The premise is the bacteria that cause Lyme disease shed fragments of their cell wall (as vesicles) and these can be found in the serum of people who have been infected. Proteins located on the vesicle fragments can, through the new method, be detected and provide an early indicator of infection.

The complexity of the method is in differentiating between bacterial proteins and the many other types of protein found in blood plasma (serum.) The new method is based on sorting the proteins by molecular weight, and then using molecular screening to detect the appropriate proteins (which act as a biological marker for the particular bacterial infection, Lyme disease). The levels examined for are very tiny, at four billionths of a millionth of a mole — chemically a very tiny quantity.

Lyme disease (or Lyme borreliosis) is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the Borrelia genus. The bacteria are transferred to a host via the bite of a tick. The resulting symptoms include fever, headache, joint pain, heart palpitations and redness. If left untreated, the disease can reoccur in cycles. Treatment is by antibiotics. There are other preventative measures which I have outlined in the 2016 edition of The SAGE Encyclopedia of Pharmacology and Society.

Trials with the new method have proven to be successful, detecting infection up to three weeks earlier than current methods allow. Importantly, the new method may have an application beyond Lyme disease and allow for other bacterial infections to be detected.

The method was developed by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology together with the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The research is published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, in a paper titled “Quantification of Borrelia burgdorferi Membrane Proteins in Human Serum: A New Concept for Detection of Bacterial Infection.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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