Precision Diagnosis for Tick-Borne Diseases?
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
For many of us who enjoy roaming the great outdoors, there are some things to watch out for. Now is the peak season for “tick checks.” An estimated 90 species of these blood-sucking arachnids inhabit the continental United States, and tick-borne diseases have been on the rise over the past three decades. While not all tick bites will make you sick, the critters can transmit at least 19 types of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa known to cause Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and a host of other potentially serious illnesses .
If a tick becomes attached to your skin, there’s currently no quick way to determine if you’ve been exposed to a pathogen and, if so, which specific one(s). If you get sick, getting a definitive diagnosis in order to get the right treatment for your tick’s particular pathogen(s) can involve multiple tests at a cost of about $200 each. Wouldn’t it be great if there was one simple, low-cost way to test for all major tickborne diseases? Such a test is now under development by NIH-funded researchers, and it recently passed an encouraging early research milestone.
In a recent paper in Scientific Reports, the researchers describe development of a Tick-Borne Disease (TBD) Serochip that, using a single sample of blood, can simultaneously detect and distinguish among antibodies associated with exposure to eight common tick-borne pathogens . Those pathogens cause: Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, human monocytic ehrlichiosis, human granulocytic anaplasmosis, Borrelia miyamotoi disease, Heartland virus disease, and Powassan virus disease.
The TBD Serochip, according to the researchers, was also able to identify whether a person had been infected by more than one tick-borne pathogen. That capacity is very important in real-world settings because an individual tick often carries more than one type of infectious agent and, in the case of deer ticks, as many as five! The next step for the team, which was co-led by Rafel Tokarz and Nischay Mishra of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, New York, is to optimize the technology further and conduct additional studies to determine the safety and efficacy of this testing approach in a clinical setting.
In the meantime, NIH’s infectious disease experts recommend that you take the following precautions to help protect yourself and your family from tick-borne diseases: Try to avoid tick-infested areas, such as areas with tall grass, leaf litter, or dense shrubs. If you plan on venturing into such places, wear long pants and tuck the legs into your socks, and spray your skin and/or your clothing with an insect repellent containing DEET, permethrin, or picaridin. And, yes, it certainly can’t hurt to check yourself, your children, and your pets for ticks on a daily basis and carefully remove any ticks that you happen to find.
 Tickborne diseases of the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 22, 2017
 A multiplex serologic platform for diagnosis of tick-borne diseases. Tokarz R, Mishra N, Tagliafierro T, Sameroff S, Caciula A, Chauhan L, Patel J, Sullivan E, Gucwa A, Fallon B, Golightly M, Molins C, Schriefer M, Marques A, Briese T, Lipkin WI. Sci Rep. 2018 Feb 16;8(1):3158.
Tick bites (National Library of Medicine/NIH)
Tickborne diseases (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)
Rafal Tokarz (Columbia University, New York)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases