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Researchers working on early detection for Lyme disease

Lyme disease is caused by the bite of an infected black-legged tick. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but unless it’s caught early, it can cause serious, long-lasting side effects, like joint pain and fatigue. 

When Carrie Perry takes Roxy out to play, she gets a rubdown with tick repellent. There’s no way Perry wants to risk a tick inside her home.

That’s because Perry’s daughter, Samantha, had a three-year battle with Lyme disease starting in December of her sophomore year.

“Three-day high fever, neck ache, headache, but then it resolved," Perry said.

But a few weeks later, Sam began feeling exhausted. The competitive athlete kept going, despite joint pain and nausea.

In about 70% of the cases, patients develop a bullseye-shaped rash. Sam had no rash, so Lyme was overlooked for seven months.

Dr. Mollie W. Jewett, associate professor and division head of Immunity and Pathogenesis at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at the UCF College of Medicine said there’s a window of time after a tick bite when the infection is difficult to detect.

“As the infection persists longer and longer over time, those bacteria can move from that tick bite site to different places in the body," Jewett explained.

Jewett and her team are researching how the bacteria evade the immune system. They’re developing a new diagnostic test of a patient’s blood for the very early presence of the bacteria.

After Sam’s diagnosis, she took antibiotics, but it was eight weeks of hyperbaric oxygen therapy that finally did the trick. She’s now a college junior studying abroad in Spain, recovered after years of agony.

“People don’t understand Lyme. They don’t understand what one tick can do to a person,” Perry said.

Jewett’s lab is working with engineers at UCF to develop a Lyme detection module that could sit in a doctor’s office but says the device is still several years away.

The Perrys say they visited their family doctor and several specialists, ruling out everything from Hashimoto’s disease to leukemia and spent $24,000 out of pocket in one year to treat their daughter’s Lyme disease.  

As a result, they formed the non-profit Sam’s Spoons to raise money for others who need Lyme treatment.