A College of Medicine researcher has earned a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to understand how Lyme disease is able to escape the body’s immune system.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Approximately 30,000 cases are reported in the U.S. each year and cases are increasing nationwide.

Dr. Mollie Jewett, head of the Division of Immunity and Pathogenesis Research at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, focuses her research on earlier detection and better treatments for Lyme disease, which causes fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash. The disease is currently treated with antibiotics, which are more successful when patients are diagnosed early. But because Lyme disease’s symptoms can be mistaken for many other conditions, treatment can be missed or delayed and the infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system, potentially causing long lasting damage.

Her latest grant is a five-year competitive renewal of an RO1 or Research Project Grant she received in 2013. RO1 grants are highly competitive – only about 12 percent of applications are funded – and are designed to support innovative health research by a sole investigator that addresses a public health need.

“We’ve had a lot of success in the first grant and now we are excited about our new directions,” Jewett said. “One of the big questions in the field of Lyme disease pathogenesis is how does this bacteria evade the immune system. So, the next phase of our research is to characterize the role of the novel genetic components that we have identified to understand how they enable the bacteria to overcome the barriers put in place by the immune system.”

Jewett will collaborate with Dr. Shibu Yooseph, UCF professor of computer science and genomics and bioinformatics, and Dr. Justine Tigno-Aranjuez, an assistant professor in the Immunity and Pathogenesis Research Division.

“My goal is to work with her to find out more about the very early immune response that is mounted by the host against Borrelia burgdorferi,” Tigno-Aranjuez said, “and maybe give more insight into how this pathogen manages to escape this first line of defense.”

Understanding how this happens will allow researchers to potentially target those factors and develop novel approaches for therapeutics. The bacterium is transmitted by the tick at a single bite site. But for a patient to acquire the disease, the infection must move quickly through the blood to the joints, heart and brain, a process called dissemination.

“To disseminate, the bacteria has to overcome all these barriers that the immune system puts up,” Jewett explained.  “So if we can figure out a way to strengthen the immune response or target the bacteria to make it more susceptible to the immune defenses, then we might even be able to prevent the infection from happening in the first place.”

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that vector-borne diseases are on the rise in United States. Lyme disease accounted for 82 percent of reported cases of tick-borne diseases between 2004 and 2016. Lyme disease is more prevalent in the North East and has a very low incidence rate in Florida. Blacklegged ticks do live in Florida, but most data suggest that they do not carry B. burgdorferi.

But because Florida is such an international travel destination, many people may bring the disease with them. “At UCF, we have growing interest in vector-borne disease,” Jewett said. “Florida’s proximity to the Caribbean and South America and the fact that we are a tourism state makes us a unique place to study these emerging vector-borne diseases.”

Jewett has been studying Lyme disease since 2005. In addition to the previous NIH grant, she has also been funded by the National Research Fund for Tick-Borne Diseases (NRFTD).