A vaccine for Lyme disease could be coming. But will patients accept it?
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.”
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio improves about 10 minutes into the episode. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/