As tick season gets underway, so does Guelph-based research into Lyme disease 

As the number of people who contract Lyme disease in Canada steadily grows, researchers in Guelph are ramping up studies to develop effective ways to diagnose and ultimately treat patients and identify hot spots for ticks.

Researchers looking to improve diagnostic tools and find hot spots 

Melanie Wills, right, is the director of the G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab at the University of Guelph, and Olaf Berke, left, is a statistical epidemiologist in the department of Population Medicine at the university. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

There's no doubt the warmer weather and sunshine is enticing more people to head outdoors again ⁠— but experts say people need to make sure to do so safely.

This is also peak season for people and animals to encounter blacklegged ticks, which could be infected with a bacteria that causes Lyme disease. 

Just last year, provincial public health units across the country reported a total of about 2,850 Lyme disease cases ⁠⁠— the highest total reported in more than a decade.

As the number of people who contract Lyme disease in Canada steadily grows, researchers in Guelph are ramping up studies to develop effective ways to diagnose and treat patients and identify hot spots for ticks.

The G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab at the University of Guelph, which was created in 2017, is now entering a new chapter in its research after receiving a three-year $1.2 million grant from the G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-Borne Disease last week, coinciding with the start of Lyme disease awareness month.

"The idea here is that we've had five years to develop this research program … ultimately to improve patient outcomes," said lab director Melanie Wills, noting the investment will now "accelerate this research and [allow] it to go forward."

Enhanced diagnostic testing

Wills said her team is researching ways to improve upon the current two-tiered testing method for Lyme disease to help detect earlier signs of the disease and provide accurate results, among other benefits.

Hanlon Creek Park in Guelph pictured Sunday, May 8, 2022. According to Public Health Canada, the park is a hot spot for ticks. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

She said the current testing method is limited at times, which could impact early detection and intervention. 

"How do we get a high sensitivity, low cost, something that's easy to use, some sort of portable device so that in the future, this type of diagnostic test could come right into clinics," she said.

There's no current timeline for bringing a product to market, but Wills said the newly announced funding will help the team get one step closer to that goal.

Through this research, the team will also learn more about individual immune response and responses to various treatments.

Increasing risk

In March 2022, Public Health Ontario published a map outlining risk areas for Lyme disease exposure; however, it notes people can encounter ticks almost anywhere as they feed on and are transported by birds. 

Olaf Berke, statistical epidemiologist in the department of population medicine at the University of Guelph, is currently doing his own research into hot spots and how to track exposure.

He said over the last few years, an increasing number of ticks have cropped up for various reasons.

"They couldn't survive previously, but due to climate change they are invading here from the south of the border into Canada, into Ontario … and on the other hand, people encroach on wildlife and cities get bigger and bigger," Berke said.

Melanie Wills wears lime green shoes to mark Lyme Disease Awareness Month this May. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Some of Berke's research is looking into Google searches for terms like "Lyme disease" and "ticks" to help track hot spots and exposure.

While that work is ongoing, Berke and Wills are reminding the public to follow safety messages with regards to tick season such as checking your clothes and body after heading outdoors or wearing long sleeves and pants.

"We want everyone to be vigilant about Lyme disease year round, but especially in the spring. We want people to, as they're coming out of hibernation, to think about what they're exposing themselves to when they go out in nature," Wills said.


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