Patients in Lunenburg to be recruited for new national Lyme disease research project

by Gayle Wilson

Frontline clinicians in Lunenburg will be recruiting patients on the South Shore in a new, $340,000 project to collect research and specimens for a national bio bank to further the understanding of Lyme disease and develop new diagnostic tests.

Dr. Todd Hatchette, a medical microbiologist at the QEII hospital in Halifax, is one of four infectious disease specialists in Nova Scotia who will coordinate the new project with the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NHSA), and which is being funded under the Canadian government's recently announced $4 million Pan-Canadian Research Network on Lyme Disease.

Canada's minister of health, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, announced the national project on October 15, along with an additional $1.25 million for five projects through the Infectious Diseases and Climate Change Fund aimed at addressing Lyme disease.

"It's going to provide the infrastructure to really look at [Lyme disease] in a Nova Scotian, but also a Canadian fashion," said Hatchette, who is also a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and leading microbiologist for the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

Lunenburg County, as the so-called epicentre of Lyme disease incidents in Nova Scotia, and Kingston, Ontario are the first two sites being established under the national research network program.

"The plan is to start with two [sites], get things up and running, and then expand across the country to Manitoba, and I believe the Eastern Townships in Quebec and maybe B.C.," Hatchette explained to LighthouseNOW.

He's been visiting with physicians in Lunenburg and reports, "they're actually quite enthusiastic to participate."

Although the project is still in the planning stages, the idea is that patients who are suspected of having Lyme disease will be approached and asked if they want to participate in the research network study.

For those that do, on their initial visit records will be made of how they're feeling and the type of symptoms they have, and blood samples will be collected.

If the patients have a bulls-eye rash or rash of any sort, a skin biopsy will be taken to see if researchers can grow the Lyme bug from there.

And then they'll be followed over time, to see how they do clinically and how their symptoms resolve, according to Hatchette.

"One of the cool things is trying to get the bug, so if we can actually get the specimens that we can use for generating new tests.

"But also, we can try to see what bugs, or what strains of Lyme disease are infecting the patients, to get a better idea of strain variation here, and compare it to Ontario," says Hatchette.

Meanwhile, other researchers across the country will also engage with people in the Lunenburg area to look at potential educational programs, for the purpose of evaluating preventative measures and population health.

"There's lots of potential questions that we can answer once we develop this infrastructure," suggests Hatchette.

He added that another "neat thing" is that patient engagement is a high priority with the network.

"So that we'll have patients involved in not only the planning of the studies, but the implementation and the science as well."

Overall, the study will involve two categories of patients - those who are newly identified cases and those who have been diagnosed and treated for Lyme, but continue to have symptoms.

"There's lots of people out there who've got persistent symptoms and are looking for an answer.

"It would be great to get a better understanding of how they're presenting, and what their journey is," says Hatchette.

Hatchette will be joined on the project by Dr. Shelly McNeil, the service chief for the NSHA's division of infectious disease; Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease clinician scientist at Dalhousie University; and Dr. John Frampton, an associate professor in Dalhouse's School of Biomedical Engineering.

According to Hatchette, the plan is to have the new study up and running "before the next tick season."

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