Tick saliva genes key to Lyme disease vaccine

KINGSTON, R.I. April 8, 2002 When a deer tick bites a human or other mammalian host, it takes more than 24 hours before the Lyme disease bacterium travels from the ticks gut to the ticks salivary glands and then into the host. During that time, bioactive proteins in the ticks saliva begin to suppress the mammals pain response, increase blood flow to the area, and prevent clotting while at the same time battling the mammals immune system response to the biting arthropod.

Two University of Rhode Island researchers believe that the proteins in the ticks saliva may be the key to developing a new vaccine for preventing Lyme disease and other tick-transmitted infections by protecting hosts against blood-feeding ticks. The National Institutes of Health recently awarded them $2.3 million to screen for the most promising tick salivary genes over the next five years. URI entomology Professor Thomas Mather and microbiology Professor David Nelson, director and associate director, respectively, of the URI Center for Vector Borne Disease, discovered the importance of tick saliva as a result of NIH-funded research in the late 1990s. The new grant will help them pinpoint the genes and proteins that can best be developed into a vaccine.

"Ticks have more than 400 proteins in their saliva, many of which have evolved to help them steal blood from a host animal by inactivating specific factors of the immune system," explained Mather. "Were attempting to identify, purify, and learn the function of these various proteins, because by disrupting their function we may be able to prevent ticks from feeding and transmitting disease-causing microbes."

Since they began studying the properties of tick saliva in 1994, Mather and Nelson, along with collaborators at NIH, have already identified a significant number of genes that appear promising. More recently their work has focused on developing a system for rapidly screening additional gene candidates for those

Contact: Todd McLeish
University of Rhode Island

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