Northeastern Professor’s Discovery Promises to Advance Lyme Disease Treatment

Biologist Kim Lewis found that Lyme disease produces antibiotic-resistant cells.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Lyme disease—a tick-borne illness that comes with symptoms such as muscle aches and neurological and heart problems—is how little about it we understand. Frequently misdiagnosed, treatment and identification are so complicated that a Massachusetts doctor wrote an entire book on the subject in 2013. That same year, the CDC added to the controversy by announcing that 300,000 people contract the disease annually, exponentially higher than the 30,000 it had previously reported.

But a new discovery by Northeastern University biology professor Kim Lewis may shed some light on the often-confusing illness. Lewis and his team of researchers found that Lyme disease creates something called dormant persister cells, which are resistant to antibiotics. The presence of these cells at least partially explains why patients can be so slow to respond to traditional antibiotic treatment, a major problem associated with Lyme disease.

“The pathogen itself is not resistant to antibiotics,” Lewis says. “The question is then, well, if it’s not diagnosed immediately, why does it take a month or two months to treat the disease rather than a couple of days?”

The persister cells are likely the answer. Lying dormant, the cells can’t be killed with antibiotics, since the drugs require active cells to target. Knowing that the persister cells exist, Lewis says, is the first step in fine-tuning Lyme disease’s currently imperfect treatment methods. “If you know what the culprit is, at least you know what is it that you need to attack,” he says. “So that in itself is valuable information.”

Using that information, the researchers are in the process of developing two treatment methods for Lyme disease. The more promising of the two, called “pulse dosing,” involves administering an antibiotic in a series of four rounds. Timing is key, Lewis explains, as the pulsing works only if antibiotics hit the system once the persister cells have been awakened, and are thus killable, but before the population has a chance to recover from the previous round.

Lewis says lab trials look promising, but that the technique still needs to be tested in living subjects, likely first in mice and then in humans. The other method his team used in testing successfully killed Lyme cells, but could be toxic to the body as a whole and is thus not an ideal therapy choice.

Lewis’ research is especially important in New England, where Lyme disease is considerably more common than in other regions. According to the CDC, Massachusetts had 57 cases of the disease for every 100,000 residents in 2013, while New Hampshire and Vermont had 100 and 107 cases per 100,000, respectively. With summer here again and Lyme risk once again high, it’s crucial to remain vigilant about looking for ticks—and to get familiar with the disease’s warning signs.