Hopkins New Study Shows Lyme Disease Alters the Immune System

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Tick Bites: More Than Lyme Disease

A new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Clinical Research Center for Lyme Disease found that the bacteria that causes Lyme disease alters the immune system and attacks healthy cells in the human body.

A rising number of people are suffering from the debilitating and persistent symptoms associated with post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. Lyme disease is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected black-legged tick and reports more than 300,000 cases in the United States each year.

Lyme Disease, A Mess to the Immune System

The study showed that Borrelia burgdorferi in dendritic cells usually present proteins from pathogens such as bacteria and viruses known as antigens, target T cells in the immune system, and signaling response to viruses or infections.

It involved scientists isolating dendritic cells from healthy study participants and exposed them to Borrelia burgdorferi. They found that bacterial infection causes a receptor site on the surface of dendritic cells, known as HLA-DR, to mature and become active. Typically, these HLA-DR present antigens from killer T cells, agents of the immune system that eliminate invaders from the body.

The researchers believe that when HLA-DR interacts with Borrelia burgdorferi, it structurally transforms and protects the dendritic cells from tagging bacterial proteins as foreign, causing the dendritic cells to attract T cells instead of Lyme disease attacks. Instead, bacteria attack healthy cells.

Triggering Development of Autoimmune Diseases? 

Senior author Mark Soloski, co-director at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said that they believe these observations are relevant to the immune system disorders caused by Borrelia burgdorferi and other infections. Antibodies reacting with a person’s tissues or organs have been reported in patients with conditions, including COVID-19.

Researchers suggest that Borrelia burgdorferi infection can lead to autoimmune diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis if they are genetically predisposed to autoimmune diseases.

According to the researchers, future research on HLA-DR and dendritic cell response to Borrelia burgdorferi could contribute to new therapies for Lyme disease and a better understanding of autoimmune disease progression.

Tick Diseases Are A Global Health Concern

Dr. Utpal Pal, a veterinary medicine professor who studied the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi over the past twelve years, said in an earlier report that ticks transmit most vector-borne diseases in the United States. 

Six of the 15 different tick diseases are transmitted by the Ixodes tick studied in their laboratory. He added that these diseases’ symptoms are similar to those of many other illnesses and challenging to diagnose, making them less reported locally and globally, making them more of a public health concern than people think. 

Dr. Utpal explained the Lyme issue and paved the way for future research and treatment options. Even without the proteins used to fight the first wave of immune defense, the infection can re-emerge in the body weeks later.