A new drug discovered by scientists from Northeastern University could finally be a viable method of eradicating Lyme disease, a chronic bacterial disease that affects almost half a million people in the US each year. Carried by mice and transmitted by infected ticks, the disease can have devastating consequences for people unfortunate enough to get bitten, but it has remained a difficult disease to treat. Now, a new compound could prevent the bacterium from progressing the disease from acute to long-term Lyme, halting the disease in its tracks. While the drug is certainly in its early days, the researchers have huge hopes for it.
“Our educated guess is that it will prevent chronic Lyme,” researcher Kim Lewis says, in a statement.
They describe their discovery in the journal Cell.
The bacterium in question is Borreliella burgdorferi, which is transmitted through the bite of a black-legged tick. Once infected, humans often get an angry red rash surrounding the bite that may expand as the disease progresses, before more serious symptoms appear over the next weeks. Neurological symptoms of headache, facial palsy, brain inflammation, and nerve pain can follow, and in some cases, the disease can be life-threatening.
Current treatments involve broad-spectrum antibiotics, which kill the bacteria but also damages the gut microbiome – an area that is becoming increasingly studied for its role in a host of neurological conditions – and does not always solve the complications resulting from the disease.
To find a more reliable solution, the researchers screened for compounds that could selectively kill B. burgdorferi and leave animals and other bacteria unharmed, and they stumbled across Hygromycin A. Hygromycin A is a known antimicrobial compound produced by another bacteria, and is potent against B. burgdorferi specifically.
When the researchers applied the compound to mice infected with Lyme disease, it cleared the infection whilst leaving the microbiome in a healthier state than current antibiotics. They found similar efficacy in mice that took the compound orally, in contrast to those that had it injected.
With the rise of antibiotic resistance, identifying new compounds that fend off infection is vital. Hygromycin A is selective against this bacterium and may prove a valuable asset in eradicating Lyme disease should it prove successful in humans. It is also possible that the compound will be successful at destroying the bacterium behind syphilis, owing to its similar morphology, but many further tests are required to discover whether this is true.
“I hope that it will continue moving forward in development and will become the first therapeutic to treat Lyme disease,” Lewis says.
“It will be very important to see whether treating with Hygromycin A will diminish the probability of developing chronic Lyme.”