Northeastern team solves mystery of recurring Lyme disease, offers a solution

Northeastern U.'s Kim Lewis

Lyme disease is a poorly diagnosed and often little understood threat that affects hundreds of thousands of people each year. Now the high-profile Northeastern University Professor Kim Lewis and his team of graduate students and colleagues say they've made some keen breakthroughs in understanding why Lyme disease can be so hard to eradicate and how it might best be treated.

According to Lewis, about one or two of every 10 Lyme disease patients--some 300,000 people are infected each year by tick bites--suffer from recurring Lyme disease, which is triggered by dormant persister cells formed by Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Lewis and his team found that these persister cells can stay hidden from antibiotics, leaving the subgroup of patients with recurring symptoms like fatigue, muscle pain and neurological problems.

Working in the lab, Lewis's group found that a toxic cancer therapy as well as a new antibiotic strategy could work to eliminate the dormant cells and terminate the ailment. (Lewis co-authored a breakthrough study recently about a new antibiotic that could eliminate pathogens without incurring resistance.)

The anticancer drug mitomycin C was effective in wiping out the population of dormant cells in cultures of the bacterium. But the risks involved in using the cancer drug don't make it a likely remedy for Lyme disease.

Far more practical, they say, could be "pulse-dosing," in which rounds of antibiotics are used to kill persister cells. Testing the idea in test tubes, the investigators killed growing cells in the first attack, then hit the dormant cells as they "woke up" and became active with subsequent rounds of antibiotics. And that approach could work for other chronic ailments.

"This is the first time, we think, that pulse-​​dosing has been published as a method for eradicating the population of a pathogen with antibiotics that don't kill dormant cells," Lewis said in a statement. "The trick to doing this is to allow the dormant cells to wake up. This gives you an idea that you could, in principle, establish a similar regiment for treating patients for this and other chronic diseases."

The Lyme Research Alliance and the National Institutes of Health funded the work.

- here's the release