A Colchester doctor was among the national winners of the second annual Lyme Innovation Hackathon in Boston last month after her team proposed a novel early diagnostic tool for the potentially devastating disease.
Dr. Sepinoud Bazel, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont and a family medicine physician at UVM Medical Center’s South Burlington family practice, hadn’t heard about the competition until recently, but said her patients living with Lyme disease inspired her to join.
The hackathon, sponsored by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation and a host of other organizations, invited scientists, engineers, clinicians and investors from across the country to brainstorm solutions to the diagnostic and treatment challenges at play.
After a day and a half of collaboration, newly-formed teams presented their ideas to a panel of judges. From there, five winning groups were selected for a $5,000 grant to kickstart their projects. Attendees proposed everything from bee venom therapy to hyperbaric oxygen treatment, according to Bazel.
“Not everybody there is an expert on Lyme disease by any means,” Bazel said. “But they’re interested in branching out and seeing what they can do in the field of Lyme disease.”
At its core, Bazel’s winning proposal centers on a DNA test that would detect Lyme bacteria in the blood, rather than relying on the body’s immune system response to it, she explained.
The current test administered to patients detects the presence of antibodies working to fight against the Lyme
infection. But Bazel said it takes a minimum of one to two weeks for a person’s immune system to recognize the infection and form those antibodies.
As a result, infected patients may be sent home with a false negative, thus missing the key window for early, more effective treatments, Bazel said.
Supposedly telltale physical symptoms, like a bull’s-eye or round, reddish rash, only occur in up to 80 percent of patients with Lyme, Bazel said. Plus, many may not notice the tick itself if it’s in a hard-to-spot region, like the scalp or back.
That’s especially likely when you consider ticks are usually in their nymph stage when they spread Lyme, Bazel noted, no bigger than a poppy seed.
“As a primary care physician, I see a lot of patients with Lyme disease,” Bazel said. “I think it’s still an under-recognized problem in our state.”
Bazel said she’s routinely frustrated to see patients struggle for an accurate diagnosis because the available tools are so limited. In 2016, Vermont had the second highest rate of reported Lyme cases in the U.S., according to the Vermont Department of Health.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control statistics show Lyme infects about 329,000 people each year, according to a press release from Lyme Innovation. But the Bay Area Lyme Foundation estimates up to 1 million people could actually be living with it, the discrepancy thanks to misdiagnosis and unreliable tests.
Though the project is still in the brainstorming phases, Bazel’s team has identified a slew of ways a DNA sequencing diagnostic test could benefit patients. A major plus is the proposed method could, theoretically, screen for other “co-infections” transmitted via tick bite.
The most common co-infection in Vermont is called anaplasma, Bazel said, and can present symptoms similar to Lyme disease.
“Ticks don’t just infect with Lyme,” Bazel said. “There are other diseases, too, that people can get that can make patients really sick … We don’t routinely test for those.”
The DNA test can also be performed in a doctor’s office and would likely deliver far quicker results than the current screening, which takes a couple days at minimum to come up with an answer.
“The goal of our team is to come up with a test, ideally in the point of care, [where] you could get an answer that day, within an hour,” Bazel said.
In the meantime, Bazel maintains her passion for educating members of the public and medical community about early Lyme detection.
“Hopefully the more information that is out there, people can start learning about it and going to their doctors,” Bazel said.
For more information about the Lyme Innovation and its hackathon, visit http://lymeinnovation.org. Information about Lyme disease in Vermont is available at http://bit.ly/2zN2Gvz.
Note: The original version of this article misstated the symptoms associated with the co-infection anaplasma. This infection’s symptoms are similar to Lyme disease, not malaria. We regret the error.