Like it or not, most East Enders are familiar with Lyme disease and the difficulty in getting an accurate and speedy diagnosis. But the process may ultimately get easier, thanks in part to work done by Dr. George Dempsey, the medical director of East Hampton Family Medicine.
With the help of blood samples he has collected since 2014 and contributed to the Bay Area Lyme Foundation’s Lyme Disease Biobank, researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia have created a diagnostic test that could detect Lyme disease earlier than current tests, and with 80-percent accuracy.
The researchers were awarded $100,000 by the Lyme Innovation Accelerator, or LymeX, in November. According to its website, LymeX is “a partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation and is the world’s largest public-private partnership for Lyme disease.”
“They could not have done their work without that material,” said Dr. Dempsey, who was recognized by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation in September of 2021 for his work.
The technique, a top-10 performer in 52 solutions received by LymeX, looks for a unique indicator that occurs before the immune system can launch a specific response to the disease.
“The test specifically focuses on the Lyme bacteria’s dysregulation of the immune system before the body produces antibodies to the bacterial antigens, in a process known as seroconversion. This allows for earlier detection than other tests currently available,” said Mary Ann Comunale, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Drexel’s College of Medicine, who is leading the effort to develop a better Lyme diagnostic test.
Dr. Dempsey said that at present patients need to wait weeks for their bodies to develop antibodies to a Lyme infection before they can be spotted by the current tests. “The tests that are out there are antibody tests. They only tell you if antibodies are present or not. You have to take two different blood tests, and both need to come back positive to be accurate.”
“The breakthrough with the new test is that it detects Lyme earlier and it’s catching the changes in the antibodies. It tells you what state the antibodies are in. They change when they’re not fighting the infection anymore,” he explained.
According to Drexel, the test may be able “to discern between a past infection and a re-infection, and possibly provide a way to measure the effectiveness of treatment.”
“Volunteers from our community get the credit for making the discovery possible,” Dr. Dempsey said. “Their small blood donations go a long way toward supporting researchers working to find solutions. With no samples, no research is possible.”
Ultimately, the discovery could have a far larger application than Lyme testing. “It’s a breakthrough with how we look at the immune system and how it represents many other disease states, including diabetes and cancers,” he said.
Dr. Dempsey’s practice was the first collection site in the nation for the Lyme Disease Biobank and is the largest.
Those experiencing early-stage Lyme disease that has not yet been treated, or who have taken antibiotics for two days or fewer, can donate a small blood sample that can be added to the biobank.
Early symptoms can include fever, chills, muscle and/or joint pain, headaches, fatigue, and, in about 75 percent of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a circular bull’s-eye rash that spreads from the bite area.
Donors will receive information on tick-borne diseases, advice from experienced doctors, tick-bite prevention tips, and a $50 Amazon gift card as a thank-you for participation.
Dr. Dempsey’s office is at 200 Pantigo Place. The phone number is 631-324-9200.