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New Lyme disease lab to study elusive bacteria

U of G receives G. Magnotta Foundation gift of $1.4 million to establish Lyme Disease Research Lab

Described as an elusive, shape-shifting and debilitating illness, tick-borne Lyme disease will soon go under the microscopes at a new University of Guelph laboratory.  

The new lab will be the first in Canada to carry out an evidence-based translational medicine approach to developing effective diagnostic tests and treatment for Lyme disease.

Nationally recognized scientists, led by Melanie Wills in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, will study the properties of the Borrelia bacteria. Wills is an expert in cellular pathophysiology.

The goal of the research is early detection of a disease that affects growing numbers in Canada, and is too often misdiagnosed, Wills said Wednesday during an announcement on campus. The research will be based in the study of human tissue to detect the presence of Lyme.

The G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-Borne Diseases has gifted $1.4 million to the university over three years to establish the G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab. The Magnotta name is noted for its association with the wine industry. The lab is named after the late Gabe Magnotta.  

Rossana Magnotta said her husband died of complications related to Lyme disease after a seven-year struggle with symptoms that were repeatedly misdiagnosed and improperly treated by Ontario health professionals.  

Her husband was eventually diagnosed with Lyme, but at that stage his health had been severely compromised.

While it is commonly believed that Lyme is readily treatable with early detection, in many cases symptoms will continue even after treatment, said Jonathan Newman, dean of the College of Biological Science. There is an urgent need to study the properties of the disease to understand better how to treat it effectively.

He said the lab will be “at the forefront of conversations around the Lyme disease research agenda.” He added that G. Magnotta Foundation invested in U of G because Mills, “a passionate vocal advocate for increased research in Lyme disease,” was part of the university.  

Rossana Magnotta, founder of the foundation, said her husband “passed away too early after a courageous battle with the effects of Lyme disease, a battle that he and so many others should have never lost.”

Over the course of that battle, she said, it became clear to her that the world “did not know enough about Lyme disease.”

Health care professionals in the province and country, she added, are not willing to prescribe treatment without evidence.

“We need to bridge the research gap so there can be no more excuses for the way my husband and thousands of others in Canada are treated today,” she said.

She called Lyme a “tough disease, one of the toughest bacteria out there.” If it is not detected early it can cause severe, long-term problems.

“Together we are eager to confront the formidable challenge that is Lyme disease,” Wills said to an audience of about 30 people at U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.

Wills said she learned of the G. Magnotta Foundation while seeking answers to her own health struggles. As both a patient and researcher of Lyme, she came away with more questions than answers about the disease.

“I could not turn my back on the conflicting research or on the suffering I was witnessing,” she said.

The new lab will place the patient “as a key partner in the center of an interdisciplinary study,” she said. The facility will benefit from cutting edge technologies at the forefront of biomedical science. In an interview she said efforts will be made to get the lab up and running as soon as possible.

“We need a new diagnostic test,” Magnotta added. “The current one misses too many people, and it is not broad enough to pick up the many strains of Borrelia. The Canadian tests are not accurate, and the chances of getting a false negative are very high. You will be told you don’t have Lyme, but you will get sicker and sicker everyday, and you won’t know why.”

A test must be designed that detects all of the strains of the bacteria. There needs to be a better understanding of how Lyme affects the body, and better treatments, she said.  

“We need the truth,” she added. “We need to understand the true rate of Lyme disease, and the true rate of misdiagnosis.”

Her husband not only fought Lyme disease, but also “a health care system that seemed unwilling to accept and understand what my husband was going through.”

In an interview, Wills said there is conflicting research around Lyme disease. On the issue of the persistence of the disease there are two opposing schools of thought, she indicated, one believing that a 21-day course of doxycycline antibiotic is efficient to eradicate the disease. But there are many evidence-based scientific studies showing the organism is capable of persisting beyond the treatment course.

“So, the question is, to what extent is this responsible for ongoing symptoms in a human?” she said.

Borrelia is elusive, can evade the immune system, and can wall itself off and protect itself against the body’s immune responses, she said. Those characteristics contribute to the difficulty of detecting it.

Without effective methods of detection, she indicated, those with the disease can commonly experience declining health.