http://www.telegram.com/article/2012081 ... /108179562
Friday, August 17, 2012
Outdoors: Lyme disease research is paying off
Mark Blazis Outdoors
Summertime and the living is easy — but not for local tick mothers.
In July, the pregnant females were literally exploding egg bags, dying shortly after laying. Countless millions of their tiny, harmless young began emerging soon after from leaf litter, seeking their first blood meals, mostly from white-footed mice.
Unfortunately, older, previously infected tick larvae from last year’s crop were desperately seeking blood, too, especially in June — and to a slightly lesser degree in July — injecting Lyme disease bacteria into human and nonhuman victims. At the peak of our vacations, hospitals consequently see the largest rash of Lyme disease patients.
In years of high heat and little precipitation, many humidity-dependent ticks die in the dry woods. This summer’s frequent rains appear to have created ideal conditions for their spread.
But many little-appreciated researchers have been working behind the scenes to mitigate the damage of local tick-borne diseases, including the bird-banding team stationed at the Auburn Sportsman’s Club. They’re now preparing for the fall migration and will host as many as 1,000 visitors viewing the operation, beginning in September.
The sudden and rapid spread of the disease inland that began in the 1970s led me, as a bird-banding researcher, to speculate in the early 1990s that birds, readily moving long distances overnight in migration, might be playing a role in the disease’s eruption in Central Mass. That assumption proved correct.
Initially working only with the help of my wife Helen on the Merriam Road Conservation Area and the privately owned lands of the Poler and Martin families in Grafton, I enlisted the critical support of noted disease specialist Dr. Peter Rand and the Maine Medical Center in Portland. For years, Maine provided the identification and microscopic analysis of the bacteria from the ticks, which I pulled off many of the thousands of locally captured resident and migratory birds in Worcester County.
Despite mutual benefits, that pioneering relationship with Maine eventually ended. Budgets, staff limitations and Maine Lyme disease priorities frequently set aside our Worcester County specimens for long periods. Science vitally depends on money. A closer-to-Massachusetts research connection was needed. Serendipitously, we found help collaborating with the Harvard School of Public Health almost without skipping a beat.
World-renowned disease specialists Dr. Sam Telford, Dr. Richard Pollack and Dr. Andrew Spielman analyzed all the ticks we provided from our local bird captures and wild mice, whose shed ticks we collected from their ingeniously designed nesting boxes lined at the bottom with sticky fly paper. With their help, we determined which bird species carried ticks — they all traveled low through deer and mice habitat — and what percentage of them carried the infectious bacteria.
We found significantly lower incidences inland than at the more humid coast. The grand scope of their other work on Ebola and other world-threatening diseases — and the fact that there was no money in Lyme disease research — again put our tick samples on the shelves for frustratingly long periods. We needed to find another partner.
Fortunately, that researcher would be at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine right in my hometown of Grafton. Dr. Stephen Rich analyzed all our tick specimens for several years until he left Tufts for another position.
Most recently, Yale School of Public Health Lyme disease research leader Dr. Maria Diuk-Wasser and her associates, Dr. Jory Brinkerhoff and Dr. Corrie Folsom, have partnered with us thanks to a link established by Mary Sharkey, one of our Connecticut banding assistants. The Diuk-Wasser lab has been involved in cutting-edge DNA analysis of Lyme disease bacteria in birds, supporting the notion that there are several strains of the bacteria.
That conclusion has many important human health implications. It could explain why people have different reactions to the bacteria. Different strains could have different virulences that might benefit from different modes of treatment.
At Yale, in a very time-consuming process, it takes two days just to extract the DNA. Each tick is placed in a vial of liquid nitrogen, frozen, and smashed into workable particles. After appropriate chemicals are mixed in, the DNA is filtered and separated.
But the DNA is at this point both tick DNA as well as Borellia bacteria DNA. To get just the bacterial DNA takes two more days of magnification or amplification of these small quantities, duplicating them as many as 30 times. The DNA finally needs to be run in a gel. Some 3-1/2 days are needed to get DNA from each batch, and hundreds of batches have to be analyzed.
Teaming with Yale has revealed much about birds and Lyme disease in Worcester County. But to get enough tick specimens from birds required considerable assistance. We are at the forefront of understanding the role of birds in this dreadful disease in large part thanks to the dedicated local research volunteers I was fortunate enough to assemble and train.
The voluminous data we needed from Worcester County came from tens of thousands of work hours every spring and fall by Helen Blazis, Susan Finnegan, Tom and Stephanie Donaldson, Dr. Richard Weagle, Keith and Kim MacAdams, Jill and Gary Hetel, Mary Sharkey, Mattie Vandenboom, Brian and David Sheridan, Sarah Reich, Dr. Laurence Reich, Myrt Morin, Michael Contois, Ed Banks, John White, Dan Semenuk, Craig Anderson, Ken and Justin Dion, Lois Kolofsky, Dr. Stephen Vincent, Theresa Walcott and Nancy Best.
The continuing research can be observed by members and guests of the Auburn Sportsman’s Club during migration on September weekends.