STAT News has recently released new information on Lyme disease from an unlikely source – the garage belonging to the late Dr. Willy Burgdorfer. The scientist who discovered Lyme disease back in 1978, Dr. Burgdorfer passed away in 2014 leaving cartons of notes and research after almost a half century of stellar research on tick-born diseases.
STAT was approached with Burgdorfer’s archives by Kris Newby, the producer of “Under Our Skin” – an award winning documentary that sympathetically depicts Lyme patients and doctors. (The film has successfully challenged the medical establishment over its approach to Lyme diagnosis and treatment, and garnered world-wide sympathy for the victims of chronic Lyme disease.) Newby is now writing a biography on Burgdorfer.
As information unfolded, thousands of notes were revealed pointing to a connection between a seemingly rare but potentially fatal disease, Rickettsia helvetica.
In Europe and Asia, Rickettsia helvetica has been recognized as a potentially serious health threat if untreated. It’s been linked to a handful of sudden deaths from heart disease, as well as facial palsy, deafness, meningitis, chronic muscle weakness, and temporary paralysis – all similar to . But US laboratories don’t test for Rickettsia.
“It should be done,” (testing for Rickettsia) said Jorge Benach, a professor emeritus at Stony Brook University and a coauthor of Burgdorfer’s seminal 1982 paper describing the detection of the Lyme microbe. Public health concerns warrant a new study, Benach said, and with today’s more advanced “weaponry for pathogen discovery, it would make perfect sense.”
Dr. Paul Mead, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Lyme disease program, said that he wasn’t familiar with Rickettsia helvetica, but that “new tick-borne pathogens could certainly be out there.” He cited several found in the years since Lyme’s cause was discovered. Any serious, common co-infection would usually, but not always, be noticed by physicians as a distinct problem in Lyme endemic areas, he said.
We know that ticks can pass on dozens of bacteria and viruses which has complicated the illnesses for many people with chronic Lyme disease.
Dr. Richard Horowitz has treated over 20,000 patients with chronic Lyme disease and describes in this interview with Lyme Connection some of the other possible infections that can be transmitted with Lyme:
“…Infection is broken down into four different subtypes: bacterial, viral, parasitic, and Candida yeast infections, and many patients have several of these infections simultaneously, keeping them ill. Bacterial infections include Lyme disease and other Borrelia species as well as other tick-borne infections like Anaplasma, Ehrlichia, Bartonella, Mycoplasma species, Q fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia and Brucella. Then you’ve got viral infections showing up in ticks, like the Heartland, Powassan, and the newly discovered Bourbon virus. We don’t see these viruses a lot, but we do occasionally see a reactivation of other viruses like EBV, CMV and HHV-6… ”
According to STAT:
Other experts noted that Lyme and Rickettsia helvetica have co-infected patients in Europe. Antibiotics normally cure Rickettsia helvetica infections, but diagnosis can prove difficult because the microbe does not cause a rash. If untreated or inadequately treated, the two infections share overlapping, serious, and sometimes persistent symptoms, according to clinical researchers. These include debilitating fatigue, severe headaches, muscle weakness, meningitis, facial paralysis, and sarcoidosis — a chronic inflammatory disease that can cause lung and skin problems. Numerous studies have linked Rickettsia helvetica to such ailments, although it is not regarded as a major public health peril in Europe.
Andrew Main, who conducted Lyme research at Yale University in collaboration with Steere and Burgdorfer, had Lyme early on, before its cause was discovered, and was among patients who showed evidence of co-infection with the Swiss Agent — a result that was included in Burgdorfer’s papers but that Main knew nothing about until informed by STAT. The positive tests for the Swiss Agent (Rickettsia helvetica) among Lyme patients back then, he said, strongly support the idea that it might be a current threat.
Robert Lane, a University of California, Berkeley, medical entomologist and Lyme expert who worked closely with Burgdorfer, is respected by both sides in the Lyme wars. He said Rickettsia helvetica could be a significant hidden factor that worsens Lyme infections and makes them harder to cure.
“You would want to look at it both ways. Could that organism, if present in some of the Lyme-disease endemic areas, infect people and cause clinical illness on its own, or react in concert with (the microbe that causes Lyme) or some of the other agents,” Lane said. “If you are looking for one or a few agents in a tick, you may be overlooking others that contribute to the disease burden.”
Even Dr. Allen Steere admit that Rickettsia could be the culprit for chronic Lyme (although of course he didn’t use that language). He said, “…patients who believe they have Lyme, but who test negative for the infection, might be suffering from an illness caused by one of several other microbes. Rickettsia helvetica could be among them.”
Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, who directs the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, is hunting for viruses as well as bacteria living in ticks that spread Lyme, partly to understand why antibiotics sometimes fail in apparent Lyme cases.
Lipkin’s group has collected 5,000 ticks from New York and Connecticut. With funding from the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, he has so far identified 20 new viruses in these ticks, and is exploring whether they have caused harmful infections in people, using tests that can search for a wide range of tick pathogens in a single sera sample. Eventually, Lipkin said, this process could make the tests affordable on a mass scale.
“Everyone wants to get to the bottom of this,” Lipkin said. “All of this is critical to … finding out why some people respond to antibiotics and some people don’t, and whether or not the antibiotics being used are appropriate, and trying to find ways to link different bacteria and different viruses to different syndromes.”
Lipkin is seeking funds to expand the work to tick-borne bacteria, including Rickettsia.
Read the entire article here.