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Tick week: Two vaccines against Lyme inch closer to reality

Pfizer and researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are developing a shot against Lyme disease.

It is Tick Week here at NEWS CENTER Maine. All week long we will explore how scientists, doctors, and biologists are using new breakthroughs to protect us and our pets from ticks and the diseases they carry.

Let’s start with Lyme disease. For more than a decade now, cases of Lyme have risen nearly every year in Maine. Half a million people could get Lyme this year across the U.S., according to predictive data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   

Those numbers are only expected to grow, as climate change continues to create conditions that allow ticks to expand into the north.

But there is hope on the horizon about potentially preventing Lyme disease with a vaccine. Clinical trials will soon get underway in Maine at Northern Light Health system in Brewer. 

RELATED: Pfizer to conduct Lyme disease vaccine trial in Maine

It's been more than two decades since a Lyme vaccine for humans hit the market. That shot, called LYMErix, was pulled in 2002 by the manufacturer because of a lack of sales, amid concerns about potential side effects.

Now the pharmaceutical giant behind one of the COVID-19 vaccines wants to roll out another mass-market vaccine to target Lyme, and Maine patients will be front and center.

Phase 3 clinical trials are set to get underway this month at Northern Light Health system in Brewer.

One hundred patients will take two shots two months apart. Next March, patients will need to take a booster shot before the 2023 summer tick season. 

Northern Light and Pfizer have declined to do interviews or release more details. But according to a recent release, Pfizer will invest more than $90 million in a deal struck with French specialty vaccine maker Valneva.

"It's very encouraging. I am very excited about this as an option," Dr. Rebecca Morrell, a naturopathic doctor at Integrative Health Center of Maine, said. 

She diagnoses and treats patients for Lyme and other tick-borne infections transmitted by deer ticks. With tick season in full swing, more and more patients want better protection from the disease, like a vaccine.

"People who get tick bites, like once a week in the summer, they are saying, 'What else is there?'” Morrell explained.

The development of a vaccine comes at a time when diagnosing the disease remains challenging. Morrell said there isn't a reliable test for detecting the disease early on when treatment with antibiotics is most effective.

"I think it's very exciting, that something new is coming down the pipes. I think we need it for sure," Morrell explained. 

Pfizer's vaccine is the only candidate currently in clinical trials, but researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are also working on a Lyme vaccine, using the same technology from a vaccine used in dogs.

Richard Marconi is a professor in VCU's Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Known for his pioneering research on tick-borne illness, he is the co-developer of the Vanguard crLyme, one of the most successful canine vaccines on the market.

"We want to tailor it to humans," Marconi said. 

VCU's human vaccine will contain two components, also found in the canine vaccine, he said. One triggers your immune system to make antibodies that kill the bacteria in the tick, and the other for any other pathogens that may make it into the body. One of the key challenges is blocking different strains of Lyme.

"How do we make it so it will protect against all the variants now and those that will arise in the future?" Marconi added.

Researchers at VCU are also working on a diagnostic test for Lyme, that could be used in doctor's offices. As for the vaccine, animal testing is underway as Marconi's team looks for corporate and private partners to take the shot to market in the next several years.

So far, clinical trials for Pfizer's Lyme vaccine candidate, among more than 250 patients, show limited side effects.

For information on Lyme disease and tick-borne infections, from the Maine CDC, including real-time data, go here.

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