A family’s health trauma translates into a mission to solve a chronic health problem suffered by more than two million Americans.
Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, with more than 427,000 new cases every year. Currently, there are no accurate tests for Lyme. Lyme is known as “the great imitator,” and it can be challenging to diagnose as many of its symptoms, like fatigue, disrupted sleep, brain fog, and joint and body pain, also occur with other diseases. As a result, Lyme victims are frequently misdiagnosed. Researchers still do not understand why 10-20 percent of Lyme patients remain sick, enduring painful and disabling symptoms long after diagnosis and antibiotic treatment. According to a study conducted by scientists at Global Lyme Alliance (GLA) and Brown University, more than two million people in the United States could suffer profound disability from post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLD) by the end of 2020.
A San Francisco Bay Area family of four decided to make a cure for chronic Lyme disease their personal mission after all members of the family tested positive for Lyme disesase and co-infections. The Fairbairn family, who are looking to prevent others from enduring a similarly painful chronic health trauma and to shed light on the complex disease, have made a $2.14 million gift to the MIT School of Engineering to fund a two-year research project examining a physiomimetic analysis of acute and chronic Lyme disease.
The project which is led by Linda Griffith at the MIT School of Engineering will combine four independent research groups at MIT, The Ragon Institute of MGH, and Harvard. “As a result of this funding, experts in tissue engineering, systems immunology, infectious disease and chronic inflammatory diseases, now have a unique opportunity to collaborate on the great challenge of finding more effective diagnoses and treatments of Lyme disease,” says Griffith.
The team will focus on how the immune system responds to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, and how it fundamentally alters the immune system in some infected patients, leading to lasting inflammation. This reprogramming may be different in men and women, corresponding to emerging evidence for differences in the immune systems of male and females. While much has been learned from the analysis of patient samples and standard cell cultures, research thus far has not captured dynamic, recursive interactions between B.burgdorferi and the human immune system, especially as a function of sex, along with various environmental factors such as nutrition and treatment with antibiotics. A holistic approach that combines the analysis of patient systems with hypothesis testing and complex immune competent 3D tissue models is needed to move the field forward.
“While this project specifically focuses on Lyme, the team hopes to see their findings be applied to a variety of illnesses and diseases, specifically those affecting women, says Griffith. “Learning about how infection can cause chronic fatigue and inflammation is extremely important because we don’t really understand these symptoms in a lot of chronic diseases. The symptomatology overlaps with endometriosis and adenomyosis, and a lot of these diseases that women get that are not clearly linked to infection as a trigger.”
The project team intends to engage with other Lyme research groups that the Fairbairns are funding with the objective of achieving progress through the efforts of community and approach this challenge from different angles. To complement their work, the team will collaborate with other Lyme disease researchers such as Michal Caspi Tal, an instructor at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University who investigates immune responses to Lyme disease. GLA is excited to see the outcomes of this study.
News adapted from the following MIT News Press Release