_MEDICINE Immunology

_An Early Test for Lyme

A prize-winning new test for Lyme disease could help doctors make a speedy diagnosis of the tick-borne disease.

_Mary Ann Comunale

Comunale is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology in the College of Medicine and director of the Center for Scientific Communications and Outreach.

College of Medicine researchers have devised a test that can detect Lyme disease when the infection is still ripe for treatment with antibiotics.

Doctors have long struggled to diagnose Lyme because it becomes virtually indiscernible once the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that carry it enters the bloodstream. Standard testing misses the early stages of infection about half the time, and the tell-tale bulls-eye rash associated it with does not always appear. The disease therefore often goes undiagnosed until it’s too late for antibiotics to have the greatest effect.


Ticks carrying the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria are a prime vector for Lyme disease, which infects some 500,000 Americans annually.

A team led by Assistant Professor Mary Ann Comunale devised a diagnostic test that focuses on the behavior of glycans, carbohydrate-based modifications found on proteins which react to an infection by promoting the immune response. The team found that Lyme actually has an opposite effect on glycans, which hinders the immune response and buys the disease more time to spread in the body.

“The test specifically focuses on the Lyme bacteria’s dysregulation of the immune system before the body produces antibodies to the bacterial antigens, in a process known as seroconversion,” Comunale says. “This allows for earlier detection than other tests. The test will also monitor response to a treatment and can distinguish between diseases with similar symptoms.”

The method — which does not depend on the detection of Borrelia-specific antibodies — emerged as one of 10 top performers in the LymeX prize competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Stephen and Alexandra Cohen Foundation to accelerate the development of Lyme disease diagnostics.

Early results indicate that Drexel’s method could be more than 80% accurate at detecting a Lyme infection in its early stages and that it can differentiate between a past infection and reinfection.

The prize award from LymeX and support from the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership Program are aiding Comunale and her team, which includes doctoral students Benjamin Haslund-Gourley and Jintong Hou; Joris Beld, assistant professor of microbiology, College of Medicine; Kevin Owens, associate professor of chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences; Anand Mehta of the Medical University of South Carolina; and George Dempsey of East Hampton Family Medicine in New York.