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Building a better Lyme disease test?

The blacklegged tick can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
The blacklegged tick can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

Experts tell us it’s important to treat Lyme disease early, and state officials say Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in Michigan. 

But officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it can sometimes be confused with a similar condition that’s also transmitted by ticks, called Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, or STARI.

A research team has found a way to help tell these conditions apart early.

Here's what the CDC says about STARI:

A rash similar to the rash of Lyme disease has been described in humans following bites of the lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum. The rash may be accompanied by fatigue, fever, headache, muscle and joint pains. This condition has been named southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). The cause of STARI is not known.

One important note here: the lone star tick does not transmit the bacterium that causes Lyme disease - the blacklegged tick does.

John Belisle is a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology at Colorado State University, and an author of a study published in Science Translational Medicine.

“We looked at what are called 'small molecule metabolites' in the blood, and we were able to look at a large number of these and develop signatures which were able to differentiate between early Lyme disease and STARI,” he says.

This matters, because experts say the sooner you treat Lyme disease with antibiotics, the less likely you are to have severe symptoms.

Belisle says the current lab test for Lyme disease has some limitations.

Credit CDC
The lone star tick can transmit STARI.

“The limitations are really with the early stages of disease, which are typically thought to be within the first three weeks after the tick bite," he says. "The limitations are really the sensitivity, or the ability to tell someone, when they have a negative test, that it’s truly negative. So what we were trying to do with this test is develop a test that’s more sensitive for telling a person whether they do or do not have Lyme disease.”

He says that could be possible in the near future.

"We’re actually moving fairly quickly. Mass spectrometry is already used in hospital laboratories for screening of newborns for metabolic inborn errors. So we would use the same type of instrumentation for our test," says Belisle.

Learn more about the five most common ticks in Michigan here.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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