Biology Professor Makes Breakthrough in Lyme Disease Research
Biology Professor Makes Breakthrough in Lyme Disease Research

by Karen Grava
Director of Media Relations

Many of the 300,000 patients who contract Lyme disease each year know that curing it isn’t easy. Often, it seems to recur as soon as the antibiotics are discontinued, and doctors are reluctant to offer more and more rounds of antibiotics.

But now a new study, whose lead author is Eva Sapi, professor and head of UNH’s biology and environmental science program, suggests that the reason the Borrelia spirochetes that cause Lyme disease are resistant to treatment is because they form a biofilm in the body that allows it to “hide out” from antibiotics.

That biofilm – which has a very protective layer you might call “slime” – actually makes the bacteria up to 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics than are other bacteria.

Eva Sapi

The article, the first to demonstrate the presence of Borrelia biofilm in human infected skin tissues, confirms that these structures indeed can exist in the human body. The research was published in the European Journal of Microbiology and Immunology, an international, peer-reviewed online journal. She hopes the work will lead to better therapies for curing the disease.

“These findings could change the way we think about Lyme disease,” she said, “especially in patients where it seems to be a persistent disease, despite long-term antibiotic treatment.”

This recent finding could help to better understand how Borrelia can survive treatment, clarify the biofilm components and provide novel therapeutic targets for chronic Lyme disease, with the hope of eradicating Borrelia in these patients.

The work is a follow-up to the 2012 research team’s article in PLOS ONE, another international, peer-reviewed online publication, which proposed that the observed antibiotic resistance and reoccurrence of Lyme disease might be due to the formation of an antibiotic resistance form called biofilm. Since then, the team has focused on actually finding the biofilm in human tissues. Their latest paper outlines their proof that it indeed exists.

So what exactly is a biofilm?

“A biofilm is a complex aggregation of microorganisms growing on a solid substrate,” said Sapi, who has chronic Lyme disease. “Unlike the more familiar free-swimming bacterial forms, cells in biofilms surround themselves with a complex matrix, better known as ‘slime,’ to protect the cells from environmental stresses such as the attack of the immune system or the exposure to antibiotics.”

The paper can be found online.

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