November 1, 2002

Diagnosing Lyme disease in its early stages is critical to successful treatment, yet no clear test for the disease exists.

Some researchers say Lyme disease may be confused with Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, or STARI, a mysterious malady in Texas and other states south of Maryland. It causes the same type of rash, but patients with STARI typically respond well to antibiotics while those with confirmed Lyme disease may not. The two diseases confuse laboratories, leading to false test readings and misdiagnoses.

The situation is more complex in Texas because many areas where Lyme-like symptoms are reported do not contain high numbers of the type of deer tick that is usually infected with the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. Instead, a related pathogen carried by a different species of tick, the Lone Star tick, is more prevalent in these areas and is believed to be associated with the symptoms reported by patients. To date, little research has been done on the Lone Star tick as a carrier for Lyme and Lyme-like illnesses.

The Texas Legislature established a clinical genetics program at UNT Health Science Center in 2001 to address this problem. The program will focus on Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.The Senate Committee on Administration, chaired by Sen. Chris Harris, issued an interim report on the prevalence of tick-borne illnesses in Texas in November 2000. Among its findings, the committee recommended that the state develop a comprehensive diagnostic laboratory to facilitate the creation of a precise and effective diagnostic test for Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.

Phillip Williamson, PhD, a specialist in molecular genetics research, heads the health science centerâ??s Lyme Disease Research Laboratory.

Dr. Williamsonâ??s research team will lead the stateâ??s effort to develop uniform testing of tick-borne illness, including Lyme disease. The researchers are developing a DNA-based test that will detect the DNA of the specific pathogen identified in the disease instead of testing for an immune response. They hope DNA testing will provide a faster diagnosis, allowing earlier treatment.

The first step for the team is to collect ticks, study the pathogens they carry and research clinical cases of Lyme-like diseases. They are also collecting clinical samples through collaborative efforts with the Texas Department of Health and medical practitioners treating patients suspected of having Lyme disease or its Texas counterpart.

The health science center will also launch an outreach program to develop statewide sources of clinical samples. Several physicians in Texas who treat patients for Lyme-like symptoms have expressed interest in participating in this study, Dr. Williamson said.

The DNA Identity Laboratory is also participating in studies with researchers in Maryland and Missouri, including Edwin Masters, MD, the physician who discovered STARI. These researchers will provide samples of ticks and from infected patients from the northeast United States areas where most cases of Lyme disease are reported.

Each year, about 16,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease. Because early symptoms are vague, an unknown number of patients are misdiagnosed or go untreated. Chronic Lyme disease can cause more serious ailments, including arthritis, nerve damage, heart problems and death.


Diana Cervantes. Assistant Professor Biostatistics & Epidemiology
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