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Student interns from Paul Smith's College and Middlebury College, with faculty from Paul Smith's College, Trudeau Institute and staff from the state Department of Health, conduct a tick collection orientation session. The session was a primer for a tick research and surveillance program planned for the Adirondacks this summer and fall. Photo by Jake Sporn
Student interns from Paul Smith's College and Middlebury College, with faculty from Paul Smith's College, Trudeau Institute and staff from the state Department of Health, conduct a tick collection orientation session. The session was a primer for a tick research and surveillance program planned for the Adirondacks this summer and fall. Photo by Jake Sporn

Trudeau Institute on the leading edge of Lyme disease research

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The Adirondacks are expected to be New York's next battleground in the fight against Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.

To gain a better understanding of how the disease will impact the park, researchers from Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake are teaming up with the state Department of Health, Paul Smith's College and Adirondack Health on a tick monitoring project.

Those involved with the pilot project say it could be the first step toward making the Adirondacks, specifically Trudeau Institute, a center for research and public outreach into one of the fastest-growing infectious diseases in the country.

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Tim Sellati, a research scientist at Trudeau Institute, holds up a cloth that's used to collect ticks for studying Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. Photo by Chris Knight - Adirondack Daily Enterprise

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Reported by

Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria transmitted by deer ticks. It can affect the skin, nervous system, heart and joints of an infected person. Nearly 100,000 cases have been reported to the state Health Department since it first started tracking the disease in 1986.

Despite its impact on New York and other Northeast states, there is no regional Lyme Disease center that brings together research scientists, physicians, public health officials and epidemiologists. Researchers at the Trudeau Institute want to change that.

"I think what we need is the infectious disease equivalent of the Manhattan Project," said Tim Sellati, a Trudeau research scientist who specializes in tick-borne diseases.

He wants to create a cross-institutional, cross-disciplinary effort to develop Lyme disease vaccines, improve diagnostics and develop better outreach programs about the risks of contracting tick-borne diseases. 

"The way I envision this would be to have a center here at the Trudeau Institute that reaches out to the state Department of Health, the local hospital infrastructure, Paul Smith's College and whoever else can help us tackle this issue," Sellati said. "It's too serious a problem for one individual, one person's skill set to try and significantly impact public health."

I think what we need is the infectious disease equivalent of the Manhattan Project.
Why here in the Adirondacks? The southern reaches of the Park are now at the cusp of the disease's spread out of the Hudson Valley region. Melissa Prusinski is a research scientist with the state Health Department.

"As the pathogen and the ticks advance northward and westward in New York State, you have this leading edge where you see human case numbers really start to take off," she said. "It's really sort of an arc going through the southern Adirondacks and across into central New York. That's where we're seeing the increases now."

Prusinski said climate change is playing a role in the expansion of the deer tick's geographic range, as well as that of the small mammals like the white-footed mouse that carry the Lyme disease bacteria. 

Sellati said this makes the park the perfect location to study these diseases. He said he wants to test the hypothesis that the bacteria at the leading edge of disease is often more virulent. He also wants to find ways to vaccinate people against multiple tick-borne diseases by targeting the tick itself.

 "If we could vaccinate individuals so that their immune system would target proteins in the salivary glands of the tick, if you could plug up the tick's feeding parts, you could protect an individual against any pathogen that tick might be carrying," he said.

In order to do this kind of research, scientists like Sellati and Prusinski need to collect ticks from the field. They plan to do that this summer in the Adirondacks through a pilot project that involves students from Paul Smith's College and Middlebury College.

"We take a 1-meter-by-1-meter square of cloth, and we drag it along the forest floor and periodically check it for ticks, and remove the ticks found on the cloth with forceps," Prusinski said. 

There are three planned survey sites in the park: in Queensbury, Schroon Lake and Black Brook. Prusinski said the state would like to conduct a wider survey but it doesn't have the resources.

Sellati said the project will need more financial support if it's really going to get off the ground.

"That's why we need to convince the senators in New York, Connecticut and Vermont to establish a research center of excellence at the Trudeau Institute," Sellati said. "This is the front line of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases."

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