Local researchers hope to have Lyme antibodies available by 2020

BOSTON — When it comes to Lyme disease, the entire northeast is pretty much ground zero.  Massachusetts had the 4th highest number of cases of any state, according to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control.

What makes matter worse is that there is no vaccine to prevent it.

Local researchers think they might have come up with a way to change that.

At UMass Medical School’s MassBiologics lab in Mattapan, there is hope that a big discovery will stop the damage a small tick can cause people like Stacy Hayes-Geer of Scituate, who has been living in the shadow of Lyme disease for years.

Her symptoms include pain, fatigue, and digestive issues. She went on to say it has impacted every system in her body.

Dr. Mark Klempner is running the UMass project.  He’s taking a different approach than trying to develop a vaccine by isolating the specific antibody that kills the bacteria when a person is bit by a tick.

“Previously, what was has been available was a vaccine and the vaccine induced the antibody among many other antibodies," he said.

To a layman, injecting a patient with an antibody instead of a vaccine might sound like a nuance. But using a single antibody to prevent Lyme is a potential game changer.  It also reduces the fear of side effects.

“We avoid introducing a whole bunch of the other antibodies that are responses to the vaccine which are unnecessary for protection,” explained Dr. Klempner.  “I think the impact in Massachusetts would be tremendous.”

This research might be good news for the public, but some Lyme patients have felt let down by the medical community, saying the disease is often misdiagnosed.  There is also some frustration that a vaccine has been available for dogs for years.

Northeastern University professor Brandon Dionne, who studies the pharmaceutical industry, said a human vaccine was pulled about 15 years ago when some patients experienced bad side effects and demand dried up.

When it comes to drugs for dogs, Dionne says they’re just easier to get approved.

“Obviously the adverse effect reporting is not the same. It has to all be on observable data. It can't be patient self-reported for animals. Humans are much more able to tell you if they're experiencing arthritis or joint pain.”

Dionne said he also believes infectious disease drugs aren’t a top priority for Big Pharma.

“Drug companies really want to produce these drugs that treat disease states that are going to require daily use pretty much for the rest of your life, for these chronic disease states like high cholesterol, high blood pressure.”

It’s this mentality that frustrates Hayes -- while she’d love to see a medical break through, she has reservations and she worries about all the patients suffering today.

“It’s a double edged sword,” she explained. “It’s well intended, perhaps, but at the same time it could be putting the cart before the horse because we don't have an accurate diagnosis, so how can we treat it?”

Dr. Klempner said he understands the skepticism.

“We are trying to address that by saying we are trying to prevent something that’s caused you harm... and it’s not a vaccine approach.”  He’s hoping the antibody will be available to the public in 2-3 years.