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Assistant Professor Brandon Jutras, left, and research scientist and Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine medical student Mari Davis, right, in the lab at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Photo by Alex Crookshanks for Virginia Tech.

Lyme disease is carried by black-legged ticks and infects people when they are bitten and transmit the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Black-legged ticks are especially common in the northeastern United States, and people are exposed to the ticks usually during outdoor activities. Warming temperatures and climate change have caused tick populations to explode and infiltrate more areas of the country, increasing the chance of getting the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 476,000 people are infected with Lyme disease every year in the United States.

Early symptoms of Lyme disease are fever, headache, fatigue, and the possibility of a telltale bullseye rash at the bite site. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system and cause debilitating long-term conditions including Lyme arthritis, carditis, and neuroborreliosis. Sometimes patients can still develop these symptoms despite proper therapy.

Brandon Jutras, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, received a grant from the Global Lyme Alliance to improve diagnostic testing for all stages of Lyme disease and to develop new ways to treat patients when conventional treatment options have failed.

“We’re thrilled to partner with the Global Lyme Alliance, a longstanding organization dedicated to improving the outcome of patients suffering from this enigmatic disease,” said Jutras, an affiliated faculty of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-Borne Pathogens.

“This grant gives us the opportunity to try radical and innovative approaches like monoclonal antibody therapy. I applaud the Global Lyme Alliance for supporting this high-risk, high-reward research.”

When the infection is caught early and treated with antibiotics in the preliminary stages, patients often recover quickly without long-term effects. Patients who are treated in later stages of the disease may continue to suffer from ongoing symptoms, termed post-treatment Lyme disease.

“Late-stage complications of Lyme disease are due to how our immune system responds. With this funding, we are now able to test new ways to prevent our immune system from overreacting,” said Jutras.

Jutras recently made a discovery that may transform the way we understand acute and chronic symptoms of Lyme disease and Lyme arthritis.

“According to the CDC, cases of vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease transmitted from vectors to people, more than doubled between 2004 and 2018 in the United States. The Jutras lab already made a number of important discoveries about the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, B. burgdorferi," said X.J. Meng, University Distinguished professor and interim director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

 “The Jutras lab recently discovered that the Lyme disease spirochete possesses a unique property in that it sheds peptidoglycan after it infects the human host. This discovery affords the opportunity for scientists to develop novel diagnostics by utilizing a unique biomarker for different stages of Lyme disease. This new grant from the Global Lyme Alliance will now allow the Jutras lab to further explore innovative therapeutic strategies against Lyme disease.”

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