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Lyme disease: A fifteen minute checkup

Lyme disease is a relative rarity in India. When it does occur, it is often found in Northern regions and, for the most part, limited to rural environments. Owing to the urban/rural divide in India when it comes to healthcare access, facilities are often not in place to allow proper diagnosis of the condition when it presents.

Tick Arachnid Parasite Insect Laboratory Tweezers Macro photo Encephalitis Virus or Lyme Borreliosis Disease or Monkey Fever Infectious Dermacentor KFD
Ticks are the primary means by which Lyme disease is spread

This may soon change as a new diagnostic tool has been developed that is not only rapid, but can be performed within a doctors office — eliminating the need for laboratory testing.

“Our findings are the first to demonstrate that Lyme disease diagnosis can be carried out in a microfluidic format that can provide rapid quantitative results,” said Sam Sia, professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering, led a team that has developed a diagnostic test that can detect Lyme disease in just fifteen minutes. “This means that our test could easily be used directly in a doctor’s office, obviating having to send the samples out to a laboratory that needs at least a couple of hours, if not days, to get test results.”

Lyme disease is spread by tick bites — the main reason behind its prevalence in rural regions. These bites may transmit a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi which is responsible for development of the disease. The laboratory group established a set of three proteins that detected antibodies specific to the B. burgdorferi bacterium responsible for Lyme disease. They then tested the three biomarkers — as well as standard lyme disease testing techniques — using a standard enzyme immunoassay, and then a process called mChip-LD, an advanced microfluidic platform developed by Professor Sia.

It was found that the new testing methods displayed a higher level of sensitivity than even the currently used methods. This remained true in samples of individuals who had only recently contracted the condition, sparking hope that the new technique would be an effective means of first line detection for rapid diagnosis soon after infection.

“While the assay will require more refinement and testing before it can be approved for widespread use as a test for Lyme disease, our results are very exciting,” said one of the study’s lead authors, Siddarth Arumugam, who is a PhD student in Sia’s lab.

If caught quickly, the disease can be treated with oral antibiotics. Doxycycline, amoxicillin or cefuroxime are all common antibiotics for Lyme disease in its early stages. Should rural clinics be equipped with the diagnostic kit and a supply of these medications, treatment outcomes could be significantly improved. 

If left for an elongated period of time, Lyme disease can affect the central nervous system. Though treatable with intravenous antibiotics, some symptoms may continue after treatment. It is believed that some individuals are predisposed to an immune response even after the disease has been treated, in these situations, further antibiotics have no effect.

Studies acknowledge that, although Lyme disease is rare in India, cases may well be slipping under the radar simply due to its almost exclusivity to rural regions. The studies often note that the ticks responsible for the disease are common to the regions below the Himalayas, and so, would expect the disease to be present in these regions. 

A common symptom of the disease is a hallmark bullseye-shaped rash. While the rash is useful in detecting the disease, it can appear up to three months following the bite. The disease causes progressive damage, with initial symptoms similar to the flu. Eventually more serious issues can arise such as systemic body pain, nerve damage in my limbs, heart palpitations and immune system dysfunction.

It is therefore important to catch the disease as soon as possible. In many rural environment in northern India where the disease is more common there are no adequate facilities to diagnose the conditions within accessible reach of many populations. As such, a diagnostic test that can be performed in a doctor’s office in such a short time frame is a considerable tool.

In theory, an individual could seek treatment after noticing a tick implanted in their skin, and be diagnosed and medicated for Lyme disease within hours of contracting the condition. This would vastly improve treatment outcomes and prevent long-lasting damage.

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