Quest for Lyme Vaccine



The Quest for a Lyme Vaccine


Published: September 21, 2013

People who spend time outdoors in wooded or grassy areas where black-legged ticks are abundant would welcome a vaccine to protect them from Lyme disease and other dangerous pathogens that the same ticks can transmit simultaneously. Past efforts to develop and market a Lyme vaccine ended in failure, but now there are glimmers of hope that newer, more broadly effective vaccines can be developed.

There is no doubt that a Lyme vaccine can be made. It has already been done. A vaccine named Lymerix was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998, briefly put on the market, and then withdrawn by the manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, in 2002 because sales were disappointingly low.

The failure has been blamed in part on a tepid endorsement by federal health experts and a mixed reaction from doctors. The knockout blow came when alarms raised by advocacy groups and by class action lawsuits led to fears that Lymerix might cause arthritis or other severe damage, a contention that is widely debunked by vaccine experts. A similar vaccine under development in Europe was dropped as well, leaving no vaccine now available for human use. (Several vaccines are available to treat dogs.)

Still, some progress toward a vaccine is being reported in the scientific literature. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, a British specialty journal, recently published the results of an early-stage clinical trial conducted by scientists at Baxter International, with the assistance of researchers at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. The study found that the bioengineered Baxter vaccine produced substantial antibodies against several species of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, not just the single species that predominates in the United States as the earlier vaccine had. That could make the new vaccine valuable in Europe and perhaps other parts of the world. Adverse side effects were found to be minimal.

Other researchers are working to develop vaccines that could cause the human immune system to react to the saliva in a tick bite in ways that would make it hard for the tick to continue ingesting blood and disrupt its ability to transmit germs. That would protect people from the Lyme bacteria and possibly other pathogens that can cause even more lethal diseases, such as Powassan, which kills about 10 percent of its victims.

A vaccine for humans is still years away but the process could be sped up if a venturesome drug company found ways to surmount the obstacles that doomed the first vaccine. In a recent Op-Ed article, a leading vaccine expert, Dr. Stanley Plotkin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that he had been trying to persuade manufacturers to make a new vaccine to help prevent some of the 300,000 new infections each year; he urged patients and physicians to press federal health officials to revisit the need for a vaccine. It’s time to start writing those letters.

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