The Science of Lyme Disease
|NIKHAT PARVEEN, PHD (FAR RIGHT), ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, DEPARTMENT OF MICROBIOLOGY AND MOLECULAR GENETICS, NJMS, WITH HER RESEARCH TEAM|
NIKHAT PARVEEN gazes through a microscope at a glowing image of Borrelia burgdorferi. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she asks. “They look like little snakes.”
Pin-shaped and curly, the organisms glow against a dark background. Parveen identifies them as the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. “I’m totally fascinated by them!” she says, smiling. “This organism is a parasite and depends on its host for everything, yet it can wreak havoc in the human body. Its whole focus is to cause chronic, multi-systemic disease, affecting everything from skin to joints, the heart, the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system. We’re trying to understand how this tiny molecule causes so many different infections.”
Parveen, a scientist with her own lab located at NJMS’s International Center for Public Health (ICPH), began studying B. burgdorferi years ago. She just received a $1.7 million grant from the NIH for a major study titled “Borrelia burgdorferi-glycosaminoglycan interactions and Lyme disease pathogenesis.” Her various studies focus on the molecular mechanisms involved in bacterial pathogenesis, with special emphasis on Lyme disease and two other organisms: Treponema pallidum (the organism that causes syphilis) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a soil-based organism that causes serious infection, particularly in a hospital setting.
This study grew out of earlier research, including Parveen’s pilot project studying Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. She received a grant from the National Research Fund for Tick-Borne Diseases in 2005, two months after joining the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at NJMS, and used the funds to study an outer surface protein of the Lyme disease bacterium.
A later study investigating the molecular basis of syphilis was funded by a highly competitive NIH challenge grant she received in 2010. Out of 20,000 applications for this grant, slightly over 200 were selected, says Parveen. She points out many interesting connections between syphilis and Lyme disease: “These two organisms seem so different, but actually they are closely related. They are from the same family of bacteria and have similar structures.”
Syphilis, one of the oldest known human diseases, is rare in Western countries but continues to be a major public health problem in underdeveloped areas. “It’s difficult to study because the bacteria cannot be grown in a lab. Also, it only affects humans and primates and you can’t study those easily,” the researcher points out. “Based on the similarities between these two organisms, I proposed using Lyme disease bacteria to express syphilis-causing bacteria and then study their role using mouse models. This study is very innovative and that’s why it got funded.”
In March 2010, when Parveen was invited to SUNY Stony Brook to give a seminar, she was somewhat surprised to find such great interest in her work. “That’s when I realized how prestigious this challenge grant was,” she says. “I had gotten this funding and that’s all I cared about. But everyone clustered around me — they were so impressed.” Among them was a fellow scientist who fortuitously told her about the NIH’s latest Request for Applications, which included Lyme disease as one of the focus areas. “Science is the right combination of skills and luck,” she says. “It was lucky that I went to Stony Brook, or I would have missed this great opportunity.”
What is it about Lyme disease that she finds so intriguing? “People ask me all the time: ‘Why do you study this so much?’ It’s because these bacteria are so interesting. They can’t produce anything — not even their own food — but the infections cause such devastation.”
Parveen has a succession of students helping her in the lab and regularly reaches out to surrounding colleges to find the best, brightest and most hard-working. “I love having students in my lab and I’ve had some wonderful ones over the years,” she says. “They get a lot of hands-on experience and do very well after they leave here.”
Something else on Parveen’s agenda is the possibility of developing a diagnostic test for Lyme disease. “This disease is controversial because it is so hard to diagnose,” says Parveen. “There are no accurate tests for it.” In 2009, Parveen published a paper about using molecular beacons to detect B. burgdorferi in mouse models. “The paper wasn’t even out in print yet, but patients read it online and contacted me. One of them asked if I was going to develop a diagnostic test.” She’s recently written another grant proposal to develop a test that would diagnose Lyme disease and two other tick-borne diseases. She has also filed a provisional patent application recently for this novel diagnostic test that will detect Lyme disease causing spirochetes and two other tick-borne pathogens simultaneously.
“I also think about syphilis and other STDs,” adds the researcher. “Since HIV treatment became available, STDs are on the rise. Syphilis is among the top three STDs in the U.S. I would love to make a contribution towards a vaccine for STDs.
“There are many problems to solve,” she says. “That’s why I study this so much.”