Researchers work to put a stop to Lyme disease

Dr. MD Motaleb, associate professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology

Researchers at East Carolina University, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, have declared open season on the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

While rarely fatal, Lyme disease can be highly debilitating, said Dr. MD Motaleb, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine. It can cause skin rashes, arthritis, neurological disorders and cardiac abnormalities.

The disease is caused by bacteria that are most often transmitted to humans by tick bites. The ticks are small, Motaleb said, but size does not matter. They can transmit enough bacteria to produce the disease.

Ticks — and the bacteria they carry — have spread to new areas, catching rides on hosts such as deer. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH, has identified the study of the disease as a priority. State health departments reported 26,203 confirmed cases and 10,226 probable cases in 2016. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that the number of people diagnosed with the disease each year could be as high as 300,000.

In order for the bacteria to survive in the host and to be transmitted to new hosts, they have to be able to move, so Motaleb and his team — graduate student Priyanka Theophilus, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Hui Xu and lab technician Zhou Yu — are working to understand how they move and how to stop them.

Bacterial motility — their ability to move — relies on flagella, whiplike appendages that protrude from the body of the bacterial cells. With the help of a new $1.69 million grant from the NIH, Motaleb is looking for the genes that make up a special unit of the flagella that enable bacterial motility. Since joining ECU in 2008, Motaleb has received more than $5.15 million in NIH grant funding, including approximately $1 million for his collaborators.

“Certain genes are responsible for their movement, and when we knock out those genes they become immotile — they cannot move,” he said. Ultimately he hopes the work could lead to the development of an antibacterial agent. “If we have a better idea of the physiology of the bacteria, we can someday develop an agent that can inhibit the rotation of bacterial motors as a means to inhibit the diseases.”

It’s also possible that the same knowledge could be used against other bacteria that cause serious diseases such as syphilis or leptospirosis.

In the meantime, it’s tick season, and the best way to avoid Lyme disease is to be diligent in avoiding and checking for ticks.

“It takes about 24 hours to transmit those bacteria from the tick to a human, so if you find them immediately and get them off, the chances (of infection) are very low,” Motaleb said.

In the event of a tick bite, monitor for symptoms such as skin rashes, fever or headache, and if you have them, make sure you see a doctor, he added.

For more information on Lyme disease, visit

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