Ph.D. Student’s Lyme Disease Study Published Internationally

Released on 01.23.2017

The bacteria that causes Lyme disease adapts to live in multiple hosts – a tick acquires the bacteria by biting an infected rodent and then is able to transmit the infection by biting a human. A College of Medicine Ph.D. student’s research into this survival mechanism was published recently in an Oxford University Press Science journal, Nucleic Acids Research.

Ph.D. candidate Philip Adams works in the lab of Dr. Mollie Jewett, associate professor at the medical school’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. In 2014, he was invited to train in RNA biochemistry techniques at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories in Vienna, Austria after he met collaborators Dr. Meghan Lybecker and Dr. Renée Schroeder at a research conference.

He brought his findings back to UCF and started a new area of research in Dr. Jewett’s lab. Researchers there are now focused on understanding the genetic elements that the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi uses to survive during its infectious cycle between ticks and mammals. The published study is the culmination of this successful international collaboration. In it, he mapped how Borrelia burgdorferi’s genetic elements change as it adapts and survives in various hosts. This information enhances understanding of the mechanisms the Lyme disease pathogen uses to cause infection, which may lead to innovative approaches to interrupt these processes and improved treatments for the disease.

“Our findings provide new insights into the biology of Lyme disease,” said Adams. “It’s exciting to be a part of a project that has contributed significant information to the Lyme disease research community.”

Adams and Dr. Jewett are currently developing a website to share the bacteria’s genetic road map. With it, other scientists worldwide will have the ability to use UCF’s data to contribute to their studies of Borrelia burgdorferi, leading to a better understanding of Lyme disease and new avenues for treatment.

In the United States, Lyme disease affects more than 300,000 people a year. Sufferers get the disease after being bitten by the tiny deer tick. Although the incidence of Lyme disease is highest in Northeastern and Midwestern states, locations across the U.S. where Lyme disease can be acquired continue to expand.

Because its early symptoms – lethargy and flu-like symptoms — are fairly common, many sufferers don’t get early treatment and can suffer long-term issues such as arthritis and neurological complications. Many people don’t realize they’ve been bitten by a deer tick. A red bull’s eye-type rash is one of the first telltale signs.

Adams’ research appears in the December 2016 issue of Nucleic Acids Research, an international peer-reviewed journal published by Oxford University Press.

“We want to know the genetic elements the bacteria uses to survive during infection, and how it senses and appropriately responds to the different environments it encounters in its infectious cycle,” Dr. Jewett explained. “Armed with this knowledge, we hope to develop innovative ways to diagnose and cure Lyme disease.”

Adams will graduate from UCF this summer and wants to continue his post-doctorate studies in the RNA biology.

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