Mount Allison houses the largest tick bank in North America, which is in large part due to biology professor Vett Lloyd’s work in Lyme disease research.
On Wednesday, Oct. 26, Lloyd discussed her research and its importance in a public presentation called “Tick Talk,” which addressed the topics of ticks and tick-borne diseases. Lloyd paid special attention to the topic of Lyme disease, on which her research is focused.
“The worst things that we had to worry about [in local Health and Safety committees] 20 years ago were pigeons. Now it’s ticks, because of the diseases that they transmit,” Lloyd said.
The number of people who encounter ticks has been increasing yearly, which has led to a subsequent increase in the number of Lyme disease cases both in New Brunswick and internationally.
“In North America, infections [of Lyme disease] are six times more frequent than infections of HIV,” Lloyd said. “That’s a lot!”
One of the difficulties in addressing the rise in Lyme disease is that the current testing processes are limited and frequently fail to diagnose patients appropriately.
An inflammatory disease, Lyme can lead to arthritis, neurological and cardiac disorders. It is spread by a corkscrew-shaped bacteria known as Borrelia burgdorferi. The unique shape distinguishes them from other bacteria, since “they can corkscrew or drill through the solid tissue of your body unlike normal passive bacteria,” Lloyd said.
The drilling capabilities, enabled by their unique shape, explain why the Lyme bacteria affect joints in particular.
Since the Borrelia bacteria love eating lipids and fats, Lyme disease can cause neurological damage due to the depletion of those nutrients in the brain.
“They will crawl up nerve tracts to the central nervous system,” Lloyd said. “Then they will make their way up to the brain.”
Lloyd stressed that ticks are full of bacteria and described them as “bags of pathogens” and “walking sewers.” Ticks spread the bacteria when they attach to skin.
“They shove their forked mouth-bits into you, but they squirt out a local anesthetic while doing it so that you don’t feel it,” Lloyd said. “They only like the solids in the blood though, so they spit the watery parts of the blood back into the body cavity, along with the bacteria that they had in their bodies…You are the tick’s lunch and toilet.”
Not only is Mt. A’s tick bank the largest in North America, it is also the only one available to academic researchers in Canada. The bank, funded in part by the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, contains several thousand ticks. Though most come from the Maritimes, some ticks in the bank originate from Europe, South America, and across Canada. The bank was started in 2012.
The bank allows for the collection of information on the DNA, proteins and collection sites of these ticks. All of this information is used in Lloyd’s lab.
People from New Brunswick, P.E.I., and surrounding provinces send Lloyd ticks they have found on themselves or on their pets to be tested and identified. Free of charge, this testing both advances research and enables people to know with more certainty if they should be worried about contracting Lyme disease from their tick bites.
Lloyd’s current research projects look at Lyme disease in dogs, cats, humans and wildlife reservoirs. Next year, she hopes to expand her research to Lyme disease in horses as well.