Mt. A facilitates tick and Lyme disease research

Faculty and students have six-year history of collecting data for public access and benefit

Six years ago, Mount Allison biology professor Vett Lloyd realized how little was known about ticks and the diseases they carry after she was bitten by a tick. Lloyd started a summer research project about ticks in New Brunswick, and since then, both tick populations and tick research at Mt. A have grown.

One of the main ways that this research takes place at Mt. A is through veterinarians or pet owners sending in ticks found on cats and dogs. The ticks are then tested for Lyme disease. The process involves taking a picture of the tick, crushing the tick, extracting its DNA, performing polymerase chain reaction testing and then looking for the bacteria that cause Lyme disease through gel imaging. The vet clinics involved do not have the means to test ticks for Lyme disease bacteria; they can only perform tests on pets, which is costly. Because of this, many pet owners choose to send ticks found on their pets directly to Lloyd’s lab to test, and only go through with the testing of their pet at the vet clinic if the tick in question carries the disease. The number of ticks that the lab has received has grown by about 20 per cent each year over the course of the research, with 2017 expecting to top 1,200 ticks tested.

Research has found that climate change allows ticks to live through the winter, causing their populations to grow. Louis Sobol/Argosy

Many students are involved in tick research at the University. In the biochemistry department, Dan Bailey is developing antibiotic compounds for his honours project. “We develop what we call ligands, and we tack those ligands on to metals and then the corresponding metal complexes are what we’re going to use as hopefully antibiotics,” said Bailey.

Alexandra Foley-Eby, a graduate student in the biology department, is specifically looking for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in ticks from Prince Edward Island. Foley-Eby also tests blood samples from dogs from P.E.I. to see if they are infected with Lyme disease. “There are previous studies that have shown that there is actually a relationship between the prevalence [of Lyme disease] in dogs and the prevalence in people. We could, theoretically, be able to estimate the number of cases we would expect to see on P.E.I. and then compare that to the number that’s being reported by the Public Health Agency,” said Foley-Eby.

Tick numbers are naturally high throughout the Maritimes. “The local tourism industry has worked very well on the tick population — beautiful beaches, lovely wildlife, lots of blood,” said Lloyd. However, climate change also has a role to play in the increased number of ticks in New Brunswick. Historically, ticks would die over the winter due to cold temperatures. Recent mild winters have allowed for tick populations to survive long into the spring. There has also been an observed increase in the amount of ticks that are transported by avian migration patterns. This means that they attach to migratory birds in Europe and fall off in the Maritimes, transferring with them new European pathogens. This is potentially dangerous because local clinics only test for local strains of Lyme disease, meaning people and pets could be infected with a European strain and go undiagnosed. Because of migration, there are more ticks in areas that are popular for migratory birds.

Anna Jamieson, a fourth-year environmental science student, is looking into local hotspots for ticks and awareness of ticks and Lyme disease in the province for her honours project. Specifically, she looks at how different environmental variables, such as river density, forest density and distance from the coast, relate to where tick hotspots are. She then mapped these tick hotspots through the use of ArcGIS and Maxent modelling. All of the data that Jamieson used has come from Dr. Lloyd’s lab. “All the ticks that [the Lloyd lab] receives and tests are sent to our lab and we’re able to add them to the map and do some analysis with them. We do less on the genetics biology side … [and] more about distribution and public awareness.” Jamieson has also hosted focus groups teaching the community to navigate the new Maritime Tick Information Portal website on Nov. 25 and 28, and is hosting another on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. in Avard Dixon 115.

The information gathered through research at Mt. A aims to make knowledge on ticks and Lyme disease in the Maritimes more accessible to the public. With this information and increased awareness, people will hopefully be able to better navigate growing tick populations.

Amelia Fleming