As if COVID and RSV weren’t bad enough, incidents of Lyme disease – a potentially serious disease caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted following a bite of an infected deer tick – also are on the rise in the United States, including in Oklahoma.
Lyme disease affects an estimated 300,000 people in the United States alone. Humans and animals can be infected with B. burgdorferi following the bite of an infected deer tick, also known as the black-legged tick. About 80% of those who contract the disease will develop a bulls-eye rash (erythema migrans) around or near the site of the bite anywhere from three to 30 days following the bite.
Although early antibiotic treatment is effective for most patients, some 10-20% of patients continue to suffer from symptoms that may include fatigue, muscle pain and cognitive impairment for over six months after therapy. The significance of this debilitating disease has been recently brought into focus by a set of very similar symptoms in patients with “Long COVID.”
The Oct. 2021 issue of the journal Cell features a paper, titled “A Selective Antibiotic for Lyme Disease,” on a new antibiotic developed by a team at Northeastern University in Boston led by Kim Lewis, University Distinguished Professor of Biology, that draws on research from the University of Oklahoma. The new antibiotic may not only work to cure Lyme disease but may also help eradicate its occurrence from the environment.
The OU researchers who contributed to understanding why this antibiotic is specific to this pathogen are Helen I. Zgurskaya, George Lynn Cross professor, Inga Leus, research assistant professor, and Vincent Bonifay, postdoctoral research associate, all in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences. Zgurskaya also is a member of the department’s Center for Antibiotic Discovery and Resistance, whose goal is to study mechanisms of drug resistance in bacteria and develop new approaches and antibiotics effective against drug-resistant pathogens.
The antibiotics currently used to treat Lyme disease are broad-spectrum with significant effects on the human gut microbiome and the potential for increasing resistance in non-target bacteria, Zgurskaya explained, adding that the team sought to identify a compound acting with a narrower spectrum of activity against B. burgdorferi.
“A screen of soil microorganisms revealed a compound highly selective against spirochetes, including B. burgdorferi. Unexpectedly, this compound appeared to be hygromycin A, a known antimicrobial produced by Streptomyces hygroscopicus,” Zgurskaya said. “Hygromycin A targets the ribosomes and its selectivity was a mystery. Our data showed that this antibiotic is efficiently taken up by B. burgdorferi, explaining its selectivity. Hygromycin A cleared the B. burgdorferi infection in mice, including animals that ingested the compound in a bait, and was less disruptive to the fecal microbiome than clinically relevant antibiotics. This selective antibiotic holds the promise of providing a better therapeutic for treating Lyme disease and eradicating it in the environment.”
“The Dodge Family College of Arts of Sciences recognizes Helen I. Zgurskaya, Inga Leus and Vincent Bonifay, from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry on their important work to help bring treatments to the hundreds of thousands of patients who are diagnosed with this disease each year,” said David M. Wrobel, dean. “This is an exciting example of how our faculty are instrumental in advancing positive health outcomes globally, which is fundamental to OU’s research mission.