Although the research is in its infancy, scientists say they're on the hunt for an early detection blood test for tick-borne Lyme disease infection.
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The test uses a "signature" of molecular patterns in blood to help ID infection with the Lyme bacteria, and differentiate it from another tick-borne illness called Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI), the Associated Press reported.
According to the AP, Lyme disease currently infects about 300,000 Americans annually. It's spread by bites from the black-legged tick (deer ticks) that are found primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. Heralded by the onset of fever, fatigue and flu-like symptoms, Lyme can often be stopped with the quick use of antibiotics.
But Lyme disease is often tough to diagnose -- while the hallmark "bull's-eye" rash is one indicator that you may have the illness, the rash isn't always present with Lyme disease. And if it goes undiagnosed and untreated, Lyme disease can have much more serious, debilitating long-term symptoms.
According to the AP, today's best test for Lyme disease is only 40 percent accurate, so a better diagnostic tool is needed.
"We are trying our best to come up with something to help the diagnosis in the very early stages of this infection," researcher and microbiologist Claudia Molins of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the AP. "Our goal really is to try to fill that gap."
She worked with Colorado State University microbiologist John Belisle, and others, to come up with a much more specific screening.
The newly developed test looks for what Belisle called a biological "fingerprint" that shows that the body is moving to fight off the Lyme bacteria -- even before the immune system develops telltale antibodies.
The test focuses on cellular byproducts called metabolites that would show up in the blood of Lyme-infected people but not uninfected people.
In their research, the team discovered just such a "signature" that not only pointed to Lyme infection, but also was able to distinguish Lyme from STARI.
STARI's symptoms appear very much like Lyme disease, but it's spread by another species of tick and is caused by an as-yet-unknown bacterium. As the AP explained, STARI is also very hard to diagnose, because other illnesses must first be ruled out to come to a diagnosis.
Overall, the new blood test was 82 percent accurate in diagnosing Lyme disease, the researchers reported Aug. 16 in Science Translational Medicine.
Still, many more years of research are needed to translate the findings to something that could be routinely used in laboratories, Molins said.
Reviewing the findings, Lyme disease expert Dr. John Aucott told the AP that -- if successful -- the test might also someday be able to tell if a particular treatment is helpful to patients infected with Lyme disease.
"If you can show the host metabolic signature goes back to normal, that could be a great test of cure," said Aucott, who runs Johns Hopkins University's Lyme Disease Clinical Research Center in Baltimore.
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