Autoantibody tests might diagnose Lyme disease sooner

March 23, 2022

By Julie Rafferty, Tufts University

For scientists and clinicians alike, one of the holy grails for successfully treating and curing Lyme disease is developing tests that identify the disease sooner, show when people are cured of infection, and can diagnose reinfection.

Now, researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine say they have identified just such a testing mechanism. It detects a type of antibody that infected individuals produce against a substance the Lyme bacteria acquires from the host in order to grow.

Identifying re-infections

The researchers believe tests to detect these autoantibodies – antibodies that mistakenly target and react with a person’s own tissues or organs – could provide clinicians with a way to diagnose the disease sooner, know whether treatment with antibiotics is working, and identify patients who have been reinfected.

Authors of the study, published today by the Journal of Clinical Investigation, are Peter Gwynne, Luke Clendenen, and Linden Hu of the school’s Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, and colleagues at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Lyme disease, which was identified five decades ago along the Connecticut coast and spread across New England and the mid-Atlantic region, affects almost 500,000 people in the U.S. every year. Caused by a bite from an infected tick, it frequently goes undetected unless a person notices the telltale rash that forms around the bite.

Peter Gwynne, research scientist

Lyme disease can lead to debilitating long-term complications including arthritis, fatigue, mental impairment, and in the most severe cases, attacks on the heart and brain tissue.

Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme disease can often be treated with antibiotics. But in 10 to 20 percent of cases, the disease’s effects can persist.

Limitations of testing

Testing to detect Lyme disease exists, but it has limitations, says Gwynne, the lead author of the study and research scientist at Tufts School of Medicine who received a Tufts Launchpad Accelerator award for his work on Lyme disease.

“Traditional Lyme tests can stay positive for prolonged periods of time after treatment – years or even a lifetime,” he says.

“As a result, for some individuals suffering from symptoms that resemble long-term Lyme disease infection, clinicians are never sure whether the patient has persistent Lyme disease, was cured and then reinfected, or was cured and is suffering from something else.”

Targeting fats to fight Lyme

“We started this current work to learn how Borrelia burgdorferi acquires key nutrients, like fats, for growth,” says Gwynne. “The Lyme bacteria, despite being a very successful pathogen, is much more dependent than other bacteria on acquiring nutrients from its environment.”

Linden Hu

“In the process of our research, we found that the organism takes fats called phospholipids directly from its surroundings in the host, and puts them on its surface,” says Hu, the Vice Dean of Research at the school and Paul and Elaine Chervinsky Professor of Immunology.

“That finding led us to look to see if the direct use of a host fat by the bacteria might lead the immune system to recognize it as a foreign substance and create antibodies to it.”

What the scientists discovered is that both animals and patients infected with the Lyme bacterium developed autoantibodies to multiple phospholipids. Because autoantibodies can be damaging to the host, these autoantibodies are tightly regulated and tend to disappear quickly once the stimulating factor is removed.

“The antibodies also seem to develop much more quickly than traditional antibodies to the Lyme bacteria—likely because your body has previously created these autoantibodies and downregulated them,” says Hu.

While current testing makes it difficult to diagnose reinfection or successful treatment, “the anti-phospholipid autoantibodies—because of their quick increase and quick resolution with treatment—can fill these gaps as a novel additional test,” Gwynne says. “They may make it possible to tell whether treatment has eradicated the Lyme disease bacteria. And they therefore also make it possible to tell if a patient with a prior infection now has a new infection.”

Gwynne and Hu have a provisional patent pending describing the use of antiphospholipid antibodies in the diagnosis of Lyme disease. Their hope is that if their discovery is borne out by further research, a diagnostic company could begin development of a commercially available version of their test within a couple of years.

Can persistent cases be predicted?

A bigger question, which was not examined in the current paper, is whether these autoantibodies may identify a subset of patients who will develop persistent symptoms of Lyme disease after treatment.

Up to 20 percent of patients can develop persistent symptoms after Lyme disease. Diagnosis of these patients is currently only by clinical symptoms, making it likely that patients with different causes of their symptoms are grouped together. And treatment trials in patients with persistent Lyme disease are unlikely to show benefit if that occurs.

“Anti-phospholipid antibodies are commonly seen in autoimmune diseases like lupus, and are associated with blood clots and persistent inflammation that causes other disease conditions,” says Hu. “Many of the persistent symptoms in patients who continue to have symptoms after being diagnosed with Lyme disease are similar to those autoimmune diseases.”

“If there ends up being a link between having persistent Lyme symptoms and these autoantibodies, this would be the first test that could be used to distinguish a group of patients who have persistent Lyme disease,” he says. “It would allow us to test specific new therapies targeted to a defined mechanism.”




A few points:

  • The oft repeated dogma that only 10-20% go on to suffer long-term symptoms is FALSE.  This percentage is only based upon patients who are diagnosed and treated EARLY.  It does not account for a larger subset of patients (30-40%) of patients who are diagnosed and treated LATE.  When you combine the two groups you get a whopping 60% who suffer with long-term symptoms.  This distinction is imperative and crucial as research funding goes to issues affecting the most people.  By continuing to downplay the problem, researchers will never appreciate and study the significance of the problem.
  • Please note:  Gwynne and Hu have a provisional patent pending describing the use of antiphospholipid antibodies in the diagnosis of Lyme disease.  IMO: this could be prohibited as it’s a conflict of interest and puts a corner on the market rather than widely sharing information with others as well as limiting the production of tests.
  • Please note: this only tests for Lyme.  Many patients (as well as ticks) are infected with multiple infections – all of which are devastating, but together are formidable.  The fact they continue to push a “one test, one drug, for one pathogen” shows they still don’t “get it,” and are attempting to push a circle into a square.  This is a serious problem and requires an entire paradigm shift.
  • While I’m no expert on Lyme testing, microbiology, or science in general, my concern is that a person could have autoantibodies AND still have persistent infection.  The fear is that they will use this test against patients as “proof” they are no longer infected, which in turn could be used to prohibit further treatment with antimicrobials, the very thing that is needed.  This would be devastating to patients, and would doom them to a life of unresolved infection(s), while “authorities”, doctors, and researchers feel legitimized in putting simple band-aid solutions on a festering Hodge-podge of infections. Life for a Lyme/MSIDS patient is already hard enough, even using extended antimicrobials.  Imagine if they make this impossible to obtain. If there’s one thing you must learn in Lyme-land, it is the law of unintended consequences.
  • I’m extremely skeptical of Hu, as he has spent his entire career working with Lyme denialists: Excerpts:
    • Hu has developed a technique to give mice vaccine-infused food which contains a virus, which he insists is safe.  Thankfully the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is leery.
    • Hu has also proposed putting an antibiotic into mouse food at bait stations. The article admits that the science it’s all based on was done more than a decade ago. This project was also stalled due to fears of antibiotic resistance.
    • Hu and Telford (a chronic Lyme denialist) just received nearly 4 MILLION from the NIH to study a more narrow-spectrum antibiotic. Please keep that dollar amount in mind when you read the article.
    • Telford was involved with Steer back in the early 1990’s with LYMErix which caused Lyme-like symptoms and was shelved. He appears completely indifferent to this fact and states it was 80% effective – which is quite reminiscent of the current COVID injections claiming to be 90% effective but are less than 1% effective when absolute risk is taken into account.  There have also been thousands of reports of deaths and severe reactions.
    • Telford has gone on record dismissing concerns between Lyme and US government biowarfare research. He also takes every opportunity to correct doctors (using antiquated & biased science) who depart from the CDC/IDSA accepted narrative. This is also being experienced with COVID.
    • Hu and Klemen Stole of Wadsworth Institute just obtained over 3 MILLION from NIH to study how genetic mutations affect the body’s ability to develop tolerance for borrelia.  Please also keep this monetary figure in mind while reading the article.
    • Probably the worst part of the article (hard to judge as so much of it is atrocious) is the statement there is no clear treatment for long-term cases.  Unfortunately, this is true due to the fanatical polarization within public health and the research and medical communities who care more about profits than they do about patients.
    • Recent work has shown longer treatment durations were associated with better treatment response; however, this hasn’t even caused a ripple in public health, the research & medical worlds due to the fact it isn’t a double blinded, placebo controlled, randomized trial – Anthony Fauci’s favorite animal (but only when it suits his purpose).  
    • Lastly, the article mentions former Tufts Medical Center doctor, Dr. Mark Klempner, now executive vice chancellor of MassBiologics at UMass Medical School, who has developed ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis’ (PrEP), which is supposedly not a vaccine. Klempner not only has ties to biodefense but is behind research that is still being used to keep chronically sick Lyme/MSIDS patients from extended treatment. Klempner also recruited Linden Hu. 

It’s imperative to understand this important backstory to understand where this current study is headed and the inherent bias.  They are careful to bait patients into thinking this research is beneficial by mentioning things like “chronic infection”, the importance of early diagnosis, and identifying reinfection, but never ONCE do they admit the possibility of chronic, persistent, infection.

This, right here, is why Lyme/MSIDS has remained and continues to remain in a quagmire.  Until this issue is dealt with utilizing unbiased studies, most probably from independent researchers without patents and ties to the government, we will never move forward with proper scientific information.  It will all continue to be based upon a faulty paradigm which hasn’t shifted in over 40 years.

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