It is possible to get a vaccine that protects against Lyme disease. The only catch: It's reserved for the furry and four legged only.
“It’s our recommendation that every dog get vaccinated,” said Kaz Kalin, a technician at Brookline's Village Veterinary Clinic.
Dogs, of course, aren’t the only ones at risk from Lyme. It’s a fast-growing problem for people, too. Once confined to coastal areas, Lyme has spread to every community in Massachusetts. The state Department of Public Health confirmed close to 4,000 new cases of Lyme in 2014, more than double the number from a decade ago.
Joint pain, muscle pain, numbness and tingling, muscle spasms. Really, the list goes on.
“I never saw a rash and I never had the fever,” explained Julie Ambrosino of Dover. She also never saw the tick that infected her with Lyme disease and left her dealing with a constellation of often debilitating symptoms. "Joint pain, muscle pain, numbness and tingling, muscle spasms, really, the list goes on."
So you’ve got to wonder: If there’s a Lyme vaccine for dogs, why not one for people? Turns out there was.
"It came around in the early 2000's, it was around for a short period of time and it was very effective," recalled Dr. Mark Klempner, an infectious disease specialist. "There were concerns about potential side effects with this vaccine like there have been with many other vaccines. It was completely unsubstantiated, but that got out in the public and that turned into a great concern."
With little backing from the Centers for Disease Control, the Lyme vaccine was pulled off the market. Since then, ticks that carry Lyme have spread to every community in Massachusetts. The state Department of Public Health confirmed 4,000 new cases of Lyme in 2014, more than double the number from a decade ago.
"I've already had my first grandchild have a tick taken off him this season," said Klempner, who runs the University of Massachusetts Medical School's MassBiologics lab. His team, wary of the backlash against the Lyme vaccine, has developed an alternative, called "Lyme PrEP" (pre-exposure prophylaxis). Unlike a vaccine which uses bacteria from the disease it's designed to fight, Lyme PrEP uses a protein called an antibody.
"It would circulate at low concentration in your blood," Klempner said. "A tick would come along, bite you, drink your blood, which has the antibody in it—kill the bacteria in the tick and prevent the transmission to you."
Klempner says there’s only one other drug in the world that uses an antibody to prevent disease—it’s given to premature babies at risk of pneumonia.
"That model has really encouraged us to believe that giving a monoclonal antibody to prevent infectious disease will be safer than any other approach," Klempner said.
Lyme PrEP shows so much promise in lab testing, Klempner believes it has the potential to be a Lyme disease game changer. But it may never get further than his lab, because it’s not a "blockbuster."
Blockbuster in the pharmaceutical industry is defined as being able to sell billions of dollars a year of the medicine. They don't see it as a billion dollar drug and therefore it's a lost opportunity cost to invest in something that won't be a block buster.
“Blockbuster in the pharmaceutical industry is defined as being able to sell billions of dollars a year of the medicine," Klempner said. "They don’t see it as a billion-dollar drug and therefore it’s a lost opportunity cost to invest in something won’t be a blockbuster."
And the investment is significant. Testing the drug in humans could cost one-hundred-million dollars. Klempner is hoping to find the money somewhere: a nonprofit, a consortium of states most affected by Lyme, or even crowdsourcing.
Funding drugs that prevent—rather than treat—disease is always a challenge. And while some call Lyme an epidemic, as Julie Ambrosino puts it: You don’t really “get” Lyme, until you get Lyme.