It remains difficult to diagnose if a tick bite has led to Lyme disease or if one is having an entirely different condition. Scientists, however, have developed a new technique for early diagnosis, thanks to biomarkers in patients’ blood.

While still highly experimental, initial findings suggest that the tool may outperform current laboratory tests for uncovering early-stage Lyme. The novel method is hoped to accurately distinguish between two tick-borne illnesses with almost identical signs.

The Lyme Problem

"We were able to tell the difference between early Lyme disease and Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness by using biomarkers that show us how the body reacts to these illnesses," said senior author and Colorado State University professor John Belisle in a statement.

The team used mass spectrometry to identify “biosignatures” of metabolic differences in Lyme and STARI, managing to differentiate between the two with an accuracy of up to 98 percent.

Lyme disease is the most commonly documented vector-borne illness in the United States, infecting 300,000 every year. It is caused by bacteria spread by deer ticks, and it usually begins as a fever, fatigue, and other flu-like symptoms often accompanied by a hallmark bulls-eye rash.

Most infections can be successfully addressed using a two- to three-week course of antibiotics, but if left untreated they could lead to severe long-term problems such as heart palpitations, nerve pain, and severe headaches.

Apart from current lab tests not being sensitive enough to detect this infection early on, scientists are also yet to know what pathogen causes STARI, which is marked by a highly similar rash and the same set of symptoms.

Accurately Diagnosing The Infection

First author and microbiologist Claudia Molins from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that they are trying to fill the gap in diagnosing Lyme at its early stages.

In their approach, they looked for a biochemical fingerprint showing that the body is starting to respond to an infection, way before antibodies are deployed.

They saw a signature, or certain changes in small molecules produced by cells, that allowed them to tell apart the blood from Lyme patients and from healthy individuals. Using biomarkers to analyze added blood samples, their tool also showed to be 82 percent accurate in diagnosing early Lyme and ruling out STARI.

Molins is looking at a few more years to research this promising area. They plan to turn this sophisticated model into a test that can be used in standard laboratories, as well as begin another round of tests with next spring’s tick season.

The findings have been detailed in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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