May 29, 2002

FORT WORTH, Texasâ??Diagnosing Lyme Disease in its early stages is critical to successful treatment, yet no clear test for the disease exists. Physicians must run a series of tests, which rule out other diseases and eventually point to Lyme Disease as the diagnosis.

In Texas, the situation is more complex because many areas where Lyme-like symptoms are reported do not contain high numbers of the typical deer tick infected with the pathogen that causes classic 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 “Lyme-like” symptoms reported by patients. To date, little research has been done on the Lone Star tick as a vector for Lyme and Lyme-like illnesses.

Thatâ??s why the Texas Legislature established a clinical genetics program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth last year. The program will first focus on Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

The Senate Committee on Administration, chaired by Senator Chris Harris, issued an interim report on the prevalence of tick-borne illnesses in Texas in November 2000.

Among its findings, the committee recommended 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. The 77th Legislature acted on the recommendations and appropriated funds for the laboratory at UNT Health Science Center.

Now, the health science center is leading the state’s effort to develop uniform testing of tick-borne illness, including Lyme Disease. Its researchers are developing a DNA-based test that hopefully will provide a speedier diagnosis and allow treatment to start earlier. Instead of testing for an immune response, it will detect the DNA of the specific pathogen that causes the disease.

To accomplish this goal, UNT Health Science Center must first collect ticks, study the pathogens they carry and research clinical cases of Lyme-like disease.

Through its DNA Identity Laboratory, the health science center is collecting clinical samples through collaborative efforts with the Texas Department of Health and medical practitioners treating patients suspected of having Lyme or its Texas counterpart.

The health science center will also launch an outreach program concerning tick-borne vectors to develop statewide sources of clinical samples. Several physicians in Texas who are presently treating patients for Lyme-like symptoms have expressed interest in participating in this study.

The DNA Identity Laboratory is also participating in studies with researchers in New England who will provide clinical and tick samples from areas where traditional Lyme Disease is endemic.

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

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