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Tick mRNA vaccine may help avoid Lyme disease

An 18-hour gap between the jab's initial rash signal and the transmission of the Lyme bacteria can offer the time needed to remove the tick

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Researchers at Yale University have developed an mRNA vaccine designed to create an immune response to ticks. The vaccine injects tick proteins, causing the skin to signal its presence with red marks and itching. This allows the tick to be removed before it can transmit Lyme disease.

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So far, it has been shown to be effective in guinea pigs and it is hoped that after further testing in other animals clinical trials can begin in people.

The vaccine, developed by Yale’s Erol Fikrig and his colleagues, injects 19 proteins found in tick saliva, New Scientist reports, that then train the subject’s immune system to respond to tick bites the same way the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines tell cells to make coronavirus proteins.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi transmitted through tick bites. The disease can cause lifelong health problems such as Lyme arthritis and nerve pain. Early detection from the vaccine rash is important because tick bites are often painless and can otherwise go unnoticed.

The guinea pigs’ immune systems showed positive response to the vaccine by developing red, itchy rashes on the skin — typically within 18 hours. As a tick usually transmits its Lyme bacteria within about 36 hours, the gap allows time to pull the tick from the skin before the damage is done.

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In the study, ticks with Lyme disease-causing bacteria were removed from the vaccinated animals when a rash emerged. None of the guinea pigs became infected, but half the unvaccinated ones did.

Even without tick removal, Fikrig told New Scientist, the immune response after vaccination may encourage the tick to fall off naturally before transmitting the harmful bacteria. The research also found that the ticks tended to detach without sucking as much blood as normal.

Fikrig hopes a vaccine to simultaneously target the harmful bacteria and the ticks can be developed: “A combination … might make a vaccine that is more effective than either one individually.”

Tick-targeted vaccines may also protect against such other tick-borne diseases as anaplasmosis and babesiosis.

New Scientist also reports that other researchers are investigating whether Lyme disease could be eradicated in the wild by leaving out baits containing a chemical called hygromycin A that kills B. burgdorferi, but has little effect on most other bacteria and is harmless to animals.

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