- Currently, there is no vaccine for Lyme disease, which is rapidly spreading across America
- A previous Lyme disease vaccine was withdrawn from the market amidst consumer controversy and financial troubles
- Dr. Klempner of MassBiologics of UMMS is working on a passive immunity approach to combat Lyme disease
“My legs feel shaky sometimes and I feel like I have the flu.” This is how Monica Cliff of South Egremont, Massachusetts, describes her symptoms as one of tens of thousands of those suffering from Lyme disease. Symptoms of the disease include rashes, arthritis, joint swelling, and heart palpitations, among others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease is the fastest growing and most commonly reported vector disease, a disease transmitted by one organism to another, in the United States. Lyme disease is transmitted through the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi when deer ticks, Ixodes scapularis, latch on to their hosts and feed on the hosts’ blood. In 2015, there were over 25,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease, with an estimated additional 10,000 unreported cases.
Monica brushes a strand of silvery hair out of her face. “I’m on my last week of doxycycline. Hopefully, I should be back to my old self soon.” Some sufferers of Lyme disease are not as lucky as Monica—about 20% of patients are unresponsive to antibiotic treatment and must live with symptoms for the rest of their lives. While doxycycline is an antibiotic used to treat and prevent the onset of Lyme disease after a tick bite, there is currently no true preventative treatment against the onset of Lyme disease. As of now, the only ways to lower infection risks are by wearing long clothing in tick-ridden areas and by performing thorough tick-checks after possible exposure.
Antibodies to the Rescue
Dr. Mark S. Klempner of MassBiologics of the University of Massachusetts Medical School has been working on an alternative preventive measure for Lyme disease—important research given the great number of people at risk for Lyme disease. Klempner and his team first identified a large number of human antibodies, or proteins, that are capable of killing the Lyme disease-causing bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi. Unlike a vaccine, which prompts the immune system to generate a large number of antibodies, most of which do not prevent disease, Klempner’s team looked for the one antibody that could provide immediate protection from infection. To find the most potent antibody, he and his team tested mice antibodies to see if they could protect the mice from infection after being bitten by ticks carrying Lyme disease. “We’re getting close to making the final decision,” says Klempner, who hopes to soon identify an antibody capable of preventing Lyme disease even before a person is bitten by an infected tick. Klempner’s team is confident that an effective Lyme medication will become available in the next few years.
A Failed Attempt at a Vaccine
With millions of Americans at risk, it might seem that the public would be overjoyed at the development of a safeguard against Lyme disease. But, even after the medical hurdles are cleared, there remain social battles to be fought. In the late 1990s, a Lyme vaccine was invented that became a case study for the way in which public image can affect the success of a pharmaceutical product.
Industry giant SmithKline Beecham, now GlaxoSmithKline, had created a vaccine against Lyme disease that was 80% effective and well-regarded in the medical community. But soon after the vaccine became available for humans, complaints of the vaccine causing arthritis arose and, with the support of anti-vaccination groups, dominated the news coverage. Although investigations showed no link between the vaccine and arthritis, the public remained wary and sales of the vaccine plummeted. In the end, SmithKline Beecham pulled it from the market as financial problems were looming.
Today, interest in Lyme disease prevention is growing as Lyme disease affects more and more people. Some pharmaceutical companies are even looking to relicense the original SmithKline Beecham vaccine. But for now, Dr. Klempner’s approach seems like a good bet, in part because he sees it as a way to avoid the negative media attention associated with the earlier vaccine. “It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t have just gotten the vaccine,” says Monica. “It’s infuriating that it exists, but there is no way to access it.” Still, she is reassured by the prospect of a new preventive measure. “I’m not sure if it is too late for me, but it would be great for my kids.”
Dr. Mark S. Klempner is the Executive Vice Chancellor for MassBiologics and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He has researched infectious diseases at the Boston University School of Medicine, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Tufts University School of Medicine. He has won numerous prizes for his work.
- Jarecki-Black, Judy. Interview by the author. August 2017.
- Johns Hopkins University. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2012/dimopoulos- antibiodies.html.
- Klempner, Mark S. Interview by the author. August 2017.
- Massachusetts Society for Medical Research. “Tick Check.” What A Year! Last modified 6 2016. Accessed November 18, 2017. http://www.whatayear.org/06_16.php.
- Nigrovic, L. E., and K. M. Thompson. “The Lyme vaccine: a cautionary tale.” NCBI. Last modified August 8, 2006. Accessed November 18, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2870557/.
- Poland, Gregory A. “Vaccines against Lyme Disease: What Happened and What Lessons Can We Learn?” Clinical Infectious Diseases 52 (February 2011). https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/52/suppl_3/s253/444754/Vaccines-against-Lyme-Disease-What-Happened-and.
- World Health Organization. Last modified October 2017. Accessed November 18, 2017. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs387/en/.
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