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VA Tech Lab Awarded $1.2 Million to Create Rapid and Accurate Lyme Disease Testing

A rapid, at-home test that can diagnose acute Lyme disease? That is the goal for researcher Brandon Jutras and his team at Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Through the support of a recent $1.2 million multiyear therapeutic/diagnostic research tick-borne disease grant awarded by the Department of Defense, Jutras’ vision may one day become a reality. This research award aims to improve patient care and quality of life for military service members, veterans, and their beneficiaries as well as the American public living with Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.

“Current Lyme disease diagnostic testing is indirect, as it can take weeks, even months, and the results are difficult to interpret, which leads to misdiagnosed or undiagnosed cases,” said Jutras, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and an affiliate faculty member in the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens, “It’s an honor to be supported by this innovative program and it is our hope that our work will help former and active service members, their families, and anyone impacted by Lyme disease.”

In developing an acute test to treat Lyme disease, a team of undergraduate and graduate researchers and staff in the Jutras Lab will use peptidoglycan, a component forming the cell walls of many bacteria, as a biomarker of acute disease.

“Peptidoglycan is a very abundant molecule that’s naturally being shed by the bacterium,” Jutras said. “And most importantly, when compared with other bacteria, this molecule is extremely unique to the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. And so we are developing a sophisticated but very accessible test that can exploit these unusual molecular signatures to directly detect this molecule and in essence be able to hopefully diagnose Lyme disease within hours after infection.”

Since it was first identified in the United States in 1975, Lyme disease has become the world’s most common tick-borne zoonotic disease — one spread from animals to humans through the bite of infected ticks —  according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, more than 14 percent of the global population is thought to currently have Lyme disease or have been previously infected. The congressionally directed program to support fundamental research on tick-borne disease was established in 2016.

The rapid and accurate diagnosis of this disease is a priority in patient care so as to avoid the medical consequences associated with delayed treatment. It also could help uncover the true prevalence of Lyme disease, which can be difficult to determine because of problems associated with current diagnostic testing.

“These Lyme disease tests are not only insufficient, but they also lack the two main requirements for any diagnostic test – sensitivity and specificity,” said Osamudiamen Ebohon, a graduate student that matriculated into the Jutras Lab through the center’s new Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program in Infectious Disease. “In the long run, this may have an impact not only on diagnosis but also on monitoring the spread of the disease and the development of appropriate interventions.”

The success of the labs’ new approach is the recent creation of several specific monoclonal antibodies that can detect the unique pieces of peptidoglycan, efforts that were partially supported by an award from the Bay Area Lyme Foundation.

“Whenever we tackle a complex problem, we always take a multisystem approach. Support from the Bay Area Lyme Foundation provided the freedom to explore and in doing so, lead to an exciting discovery — the creation, production, and characterization of an entirely new set of monoclonal antibodies which were the basis of the Department of Defense award and may be a game-changer for diagnostic and maybe even therapeutic purposes,” said Jutras.

Concurrent to the grant-funded research, Jutras’ exploration into developing an accessible test is augmented with the support of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation LymeX Diagnostics Prize.

Jutras, along with colleagues Richard Helm, associate professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, and Marcos Pires, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at University of Virginia, are currently in the second phase of the competition, which coincides with the next phase of federal nurturing of tick-borne-disease solutions.

With this new phase, which runs through September, $10 million in LymeX prizes are projected to be available across all potential competition phases, subject to availability and approval of funds.

Jenise L. Jacques

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