Dr. Mollie Jewett, an infectious disease specialist at the UCF College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, has received a RO1 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health for her work in the prevention and treatment of Lyme disease.

The NIH provided the total $1.2 million grant for four years. RO1 or Research Project Grants provide support for health-related research by a sole investigator that addresses a public health need with an innovative approach. Only about 12 percent of new investigator RO1 applications are actually funded, making the grants highly competitive.

Dr. Deborah German, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, applauded Dr. Jewett’s accomplishment. “Research is the heart of academic medicine because medical research is an invisible safety net for all of us,” she said. “This grant is an exciting and well-deserved validation of Dr. Jewett’s research and the spirit of discovery that she models.

Dr. Jewett’s research focuses on Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, and ways to diagnosis the disease earlier and better. Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the United States and is on the rise nationwide, yet definitive diagnosis of the disease remains a challenge. That means sufferers can go untreated – increasing their chances for lifelong complications, including joint inflammation, heart and brain/nervous system problems.

Lyme disease results from a bacterial infection spread through the bite of a blacklegged tick but because the ticks are so tiny, many sufferers never notice they had been bitten. Tick bites and infection can occur when people are participating in popular outdoor activities, including gardening, hunting and hiking. You also can get Lyme disease from walking in high grasses or having a pet that may carry ticks into your home.

Dr. Jewett likes to use a fishing analogy to explain her research. She has used magnetic beads to “fish” for specific antibodies that people produce after they are infected. The RO1 grant will fund new innovative efforts to “fish” for the unique genetic components of the Borrelia burgdorferi important during an infection.  This research is especially important because compared to other bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi “flies under the radar,” without obvious toxic or virulent properties that make it difficult to understand how it makes people sick, Dr. Jewett said.

Dr. Jewett called the RO1 “the pinnacle of my career thus far. It’s a life changer.”

The NIH grant is the latest recognition of her work by the public and the research funding community. In February, Dr. Jewett presented her research at the College of Medicine’s first Luminary Series Lecture of 2013. Days after the Luminary Series, the National Research Fund for Tick-Borne Diseases (NRFTD) announced she had received a $60,000 grant to further her research into mechanisms of Borrelia burgdorferi gene regulation, and how the bacteria functions during an infection.