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A New Test Could Lead to New Drugs to Treat Lyme Disease

While most people who contract Lyme disease can be cured within a few weeks with antibiotics, there are many—some estimates say as many as 20 percent of Lyme disease diagnoses—for whom the disease lingers, with devastating symptoms such as fatigue, musculoskeletal pain and memory problems. Even worse, the disease—known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), typically does not respond to existing medications, and patients struggling with the condition often encounter medical professionals who don’t believe the illness exists.

Now, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are giving hope to PTLDS patients. As reported in a PLOS ONE November 3, 2014 study, they have developed a method to potentially test thousands of FDA-approved drugs to determine their effectiveness against tick-borne Lyme disease, incuding the ability to attack lingering Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

“This could become be the new gold standard.”

Ying Zhang, MD, PhD, Professor, W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology

Study leader Ying Zhang, MD, PhD, a professor in the Bloomberg School’s W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, and his colleagues tweaked a test typically used for simply counting DNA lab samples. Testing each drug, they were able to quantify living and dead Borrelia burgdorferi. Their test stains the living bacteria green and the dead or dying bacteria red in a way that filters out the noise that can corrupt existing tests.

“It’s superior to the current gold standard for testing Borrelia viability,” Zhang says. “This could become the new gold standard.”

Zhang's lab has already used the new test—called the SYBR Green I/PI assay—to identify several antibiotics that show promise against the persistent Borrelia bacteria that appear immune to current Lyme antibiotics. The research, published in July in the journal Emerging Microbes and Infectionshas been the most popular on the journal’s website, and patients, doctors and researchers have been contacting Zhang for information on the most promising drugs.

“There are a significant number of people who are sick and desperate for a cure for their Lyme disease symptoms months and even years after they have been told they are cured of the disease,” Zhang explains. “The current drugs we use aren’t good enough for these persistent cases. This is why I have been getting so many calls and emails about our test and the drugs we have identified.”

An Optimized SYBR Green I/PI Assay for Rapid Viability Assessment and Antibiotic Susceptibility Testing for Borrelia burgdorferi” was written by Jie Feng, Ting Wang, Shuo Zhang, Wanliang Shi and Ying Zhang.