For more than two decades, Marci Flory, a 40-year-old emergency room nurse from Lawrence, Kan., has battled the recurring symptoms of chronic Lyme disease, an illness which she believes began after being bitten by a tick during her teenage years.
Over the years, Flory has been plagued by an array of mysterious ailments, ranging from fatigue to crippling pain in her eyes, joints and neck, and even postural tachycardia syndrome or PoTS, an abnormal increase in heart rate after sitting up or standing. Ten years ago, she began to experience the onset of neurological symptoms which ranged from brain fog to sudden headaches, and strange episodes of leg weakness which would leave her unable to walk.
“Initially doctors thought I had ALS, or less likely, multiple sclerosis,” she says. “But after repeated MRI scans for a year, they concluded I had a rare neurological condition called acute transverse myelitis.”
But Flory was not convinced. After ordering a variety of private blood tests, she discovered she was infected with a range of bacteria in the genus Borrelia that live in the guts of ticks, the infectious agents responsible for Lyme disease.
“It made sense,” she says. “Looking back, I was bitten in high school and misdiagnosed with mononucleosis. This was probably the start, and my immune system kept it under wraps for a while. The Lyme bacteria can burrow into every tissue in the body, go into cyst form and become dormant before reactivating.”
The reason why cases of Lyme disease are increasing is down to changing weather patterns, triggered by climate change, meaning that ticks are now found across a much wider geographic range than ever before.
When these species of bacteria are transmitted to humans, they can attack the nervous system, joints and even internal organs which can lead to serious health complications such as arthritis, meningitis and even heart failure. While Lyme disease can sometimes be successfully treated with antibiotics if spotted early on, not everyone responds to these drugs, and for patients who have developed chronic symptoms, there is no known cure. Flory says she knows of fellow Lyme disease patients who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars seeking treatments.
Concerningly, statistics show that Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are on the rise. Recently released estimates based on health insurance records suggest that at least 476,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease every year, and many experts believe the true figure is far higher.
The reason why the numbers are growing is down to changing weather patterns, triggered by climate change, meaning that ticks are now found across a much wider geographic range than ever before. Health insurance data shows that cases of Lyme disease have increased fourfold in rural parts of the U.S. over the last 15 years, and 65 percent in urban regions.
As a result, many scientists who have studied Lyme disease feel that it is paramount to bring some form of protective vaccine to market which can be offered to people living in the most at-risk areas.
“Even the increased awareness for Lyme disease has not stopped the cases,” says Eva Sapi, professor of cellular and molecular biology at the University of New Haven. “Some of these patients are looking for answers for years, running from one doctor to another, so that is obviously a very big cost for our society at so many levels.”
Emerging vaccines – and backlash
But with the rising case numbers, interest has grown among the pharmaceutical industry and research communities. Vienna-based biotech Valneva have partnered with Pfizer to take their vaccine – a seasonal jab which offers protection against the six most common strains of Lyme disease in the northern hemisphere – into a Phase III clinical trial which began in August. Involving 6,000 participants in a number of U.S. states and northern Europe where Lyme disease is endemic, it could lead to a licensed vaccine by 2025, if it proves successful.
“For many years Lyme was considered a small market vaccine,” explains Monica E. Embers, assistant professor of parasitology at Tulane University in New Orleans. “Now we know that this is a much bigger problem, Pfizer has stepped up to invest in preventing this disease and other pharmaceutical companies may as well.”
Despite innovations, patient communities and their representatives remain ambivalent about the idea of a vaccine. Some of this skepticism dates back to the failed LYMErix vaccine which was developed in the late 1990s before being withdrawn from the market.
At the same time, scientists at Yale University are developing a messenger RNA vaccine which aims to train the immune system to respond to tick bites by exposing it to 19 proteins found in tick saliva. Whereas the Valneva vaccine targets the bacteria within ticks, the Yale vaccine attempts to provoke an instant and aggressive immune response at the site of the bite. This causes the tick to fall off and limits the potential for transmitting dangerous infections.
But despite these innovations, patient communities and their representatives remain ambivalent about the idea of a vaccine. Some of this skepticism dates back to the failed LYMErix vaccine which was developed in the late 1990s before being withdrawn from the market in 2002 after concerns were raised that it might induce autoimmune reactions in humans.
While this theory was ultimately disproved, the lingering stigma attached to LYMErix meant that most vaccine manufacturers chose to stay away from the disease for many years, something which Gregory Poland, head of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Minnesota, describes as a tragedy.
“Since 2002, we have not had a human Lyme vaccine in the U.S. despite the increasing number of cases,” says Poland. “Pretty much everyone in the field thinks they’re ten times higher than the official numbers, so you’re probably talking at least 400,000 each year. It’s an incredible burden but because of concerns about anti-vax protestors, until very recently, no manufacturer has wanted to touch this.”
Such was the backlash surrounding the failed LYMErix program that scientists have even explored the most creative of workarounds for protecting people in tick-populated regions, without needing to actually vaccinate them. One research program at the University of Tennessee came up with the idea of leaving food pellets containing a vaccine in woodland areas with the idea that rodents would eat the pellets, and the vaccine would then kill Borrelia bacteria within any ticks which subsequently fed on the animals.
Even the Pfizer-Valneva vaccine has been cautiously designed to try and allay any lingering concerns, two decades after LYMErix. “The concept is the same as the original LYMErix vaccine, but it has been made safer by removing regions that had the potential to induce autoimmunity,” says Embers. “There will always be individuals who oppose vaccines, Lyme or otherwise, but it will be a tremendous boost to public health to have the option.”
Researchers are also considering alternative immunization approaches in case sufficiently large numbers of people choose to reject any Lyme vaccine which gets approved. Researchers at UMass Chan Medical School have developed an artificially generated antibody, administered via an annual injection, which is capable of killing Borrelia bacteria in the guts of ticks before they can get into the human host.
So far animal studies have shown it to be 100 percent effective, while the scientists have completed a Phase I trial in which they tested it for safety on 48 volunteers in Nebraska. Because this approach provides the antibody directly, rather than triggering the human immune system to produce the antibody like a vaccine would, Embers predicts that it could be a viable alternative for the vaccine hesitant as well as providing an option for immunocompromised individuals who cannot produce enough of their own antibodies.
At the same time, many patient groups still raise concerns over the fact that numerous diagnostic tests for Lyme disease have been reported to have a poor accuracy. Without this, they argue that it is difficult to prove whether vaccines or any other form of immunization actually work. “If the disease is not understood enough to create a more accurate test and a universally accepted treatment protocol, particularly for those who weren’t treated promptly, how can we be sure about the efficacy of a vaccine?” says Natasha Metcalf, co-founder of the organization Lyme Disease UK.
Flory points out that there are so many different types of Borrelia bacteria which cause Lyme disease, that the immunizations being developed may only stop a proportion of cases. In addition, she says that chronic Lyme patients often report a whole myriad of co-infections which remain poorly understood and are likely to also be involved in the disease process.
Marci Flory undergoes an infusion in an attempt to treat her Lyme disease symptoms.
“I would love to see an effective Lyme vaccine but I have my reservations,” she says. “I am infected with four types of Borrelia bacteria, plus many co-infections – Babesia, Bartonella, Erlichiosis, Rickettsia, and Mycoplasma – all from a single Douglas County Kansas tick bite. Lyme never travels alone and the vaccine won’t protect against all the many strains of Borrelia and co-infections.”
Valneva CEO Thomas Lingelbach admits that the Pfizer-Valneva vaccine is not perfect, but predicts that it will still have significant impact if approved.
“We expect the vaccine to have 75 percent plus efficacy,” he says. “There is this legacy around the old Lyme vaccines, but the world is very, very different today. The number of clinical manifestations known to be caused by infection with Lyme Borreliosis has significantly increased, and the understanding around severity has certainly increased.”
Embers agrees that while it will still be important for doctors to monitor for other tick-borne infections which are not necessarily covered by the vaccine, having any clinically approved jab would still represent a major step forward in the fight against the disease.
“I think that any vaccine must be properly vetted, and these companies are performing extensive clinical trials to do just that,” she says. “Lyme is the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S. so the public health impact could be significant. However, clinicians and the general public must remain aware of all of the other tick-borne diseases such as Babesia and Anaplasma, and continue to screen for those when a tick bite is suspected.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”