A distinctive genetic signature in people with Lyme disease could lead to new ways to diagnose the illness, scientists report.
This gene signature occurs in the white blood cells of people infected with the tick-borne bacteria that causes Lyme disease, according to the researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Although 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported each year to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many cases go undetected. With more accurate tests, the number of Americans diagnosed with the disease could be 10 times higher, the researchers said.
“Improved diagnostics are urgently needed for Lyme disease,” lead investigator Dr. Charles Chiu, an associate professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF, said in a university news release.
“The tick that transmits Lyme also harbors many other pathogens, and early diagnosis is critical in guiding appropriate treatment and preventing later complications of the illness,” he explained.
While most people with Lyme disease recover quickly with antibiotic treatment, up to 20 percent have persistent symptoms. The illness has also been linked with arthritis, meningitis, facial palsy and even heart muscle damage that can cause sudden death.
In this study, the researchers found that Lyme disease patients had distinctive gene signatures in blood cells that lasted for at least three weeks, even if they took antibiotics.
“To our knowledge, this study is the first to document changes in gene expression occurring even after a bacterial infection has been treated with appropriate antibiotics,” senior investigator Dr. John Aucott, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, said in the news release.
The study was published Feb. 12 in the journal mBio and is scheduled for presentation Saturday at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, in Washington, D.C.
Larger studies are needed to confirm the findings, the researchers said.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about Lyme disease.