Lyme Study Uses Drug Discovery Methods That Have Fueled Cancer Breakthroughs

Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Close up of tick on patch of pink human skin.

Labs at Duke and other academic centers collaborate to identify alternatives to antibiotics

Antibiotics are currently the only treatments available for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, but researchers at Duke Health are working to expand the medical toolkit by identifying vulnerable areas of disease-causing bacteria that could lead to innovative therapies.

The research project, which recently received a $3.8 million grant from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, relies on drug discovery methods that have proven successful in identifying treatments for cancer and viral diseases.

“Our goal is to find alternatives to antibiotics to treat Lyme disease, which is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, and illnesses that arise from the Bartonella pathogen,” said Neil Spector, M.D., the Sandra Coates Associate Professor Breast Cancer Research at Duke Cancer Institute and the study’s co-principal investigator.

“We’re hoping to move from isolating targets to identifying potential drugs to testing in animal models within three years – so a very aggressive timeline,” said Spector, who was a Lyme patient himself and nearly died from complications of disease. “Our goal is to identify drugs that will target the Achilles’ heel of these pathogens while sparing the normal gut microbiome.”

Spector and co-principal investigator Timothy Haystead, Ph.D., professor in the department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke, are collaborating with scientists at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Tulane Medical Center to perform distinct functions of the study.

The Duke team will use technology Haystead’s lab has pioneered for cancer drug discovery, which will identify protein targets for the development of a completely new class of molecularly targeted therapies for Borrelia burgdorferi and Bartonella.

The team at Duke will then screen thousands of new compounds to identify those that target the desired proteins. The new compounds identified at Duke will then be tested at Johns Hopkins in a high-throughput assay to evaluate their effects on the viability of Borrelia burgdorferi and Bartonella.

The most promising drug candidates will then be sent to Tulane, where researchers will determine their efficacy in animal models of Bartonella illnesses and Lyme diseases, including in primates.

Read full Duke Health article.