SMHS, CDC, and UK scientists collaborate to prevent effects of Lyme disease

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News Article

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School of Medicine & Health Sciences


GRAND FORKS, N.D.—Scientists at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences have collaborated with colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the University of Kentucky School of Medicine on a research project to limit some of the health risks from contracting Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness of humans in the United States, causing an estimated 300,000 cases per year. Lyme disease is a debilitating and significant public health problem that can result in arthritis, heart problems, and neurological impairment and disability. While Lyme disease can be treated effectively with antibiotics, some people continue to suffer with pain, fatigue, and memory problems called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.

In November of 2014, a report from a research team led by Assistant Professor Catherine Brissette, PhD, a biomedical scientist in the Department of Basic Sciences at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and Professor Jefferson Vaughan, PhD, from the UND Department of Biology, warned that all of the variables for contracting Lyme disease are now present and established in Grand Forks County. Brissette’s laboratory works on the causative agent of Lyme disease, the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi.

Now a multi-institution research team led by Brissette has published the results of research on a possible mechanism to control two pernicious effects of Lyme disease.

“Lyme arthritis is very common among patients who get Lyme disease,” Brissette said. “And Lyme carditis, inflammation of the heart, can cause sudden death.”

To study a possible means of preventing the Lyme disease bacteria from infecting the heart, the research team created a bacterial mutant that lacked what is called an adhesin, a protein on the surface of cells that facilitates adhesion or “sticking” to other cells or surfaces.

“This mutant was defective in colonizing the heart,” Brissette said. “But at the same time, caused worse arthritis in the mouse model we used for our research.”

The research paper titled “Borrelia burgdorferi RevA significantly affects pathogenicity and host response in the mouse model of Lyme disease,” is available online from Infection and Immunity, a journal of the American Society of Microbiology at

Authors of the paper were Rebecca Byram and Barbara J.B. Johnson from the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colo.; Amy Bowman and Brian Stevenson from the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine in Lexington; and Robert A. Gaultney, Angela M. Floden, Brandee L. Stone, and Catherine Brissette from the Department of Basic Sciences at the UND SMHS and medical student Christopher Hellekson. Gaultney and Stone are graduate students, and Hellekson is a third-year medical student, who participated through the Research Experience for Medical Students program at the UND SMHS.

“The efforts of our graduate students Robert and Brandee as well as our medical student Christopher were pivotal in conducting the research,” Brissette said.

Funding for the research was supported by a K22 grant to Brissette from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an institute of the National Institutes of Health. K22 grants are Career Transition Awards given to postdoctoral investigators with less than five years of research experience to boost their careers at their institutions.

Lyme disease was named after a cluster of cases among adults and children that broke out in Lyme, Conn., in 1975. For more information about prevention, please visit the North Dakota Department of Health’s website “Tickborne Diseases” at