"It's not quite like finding a needle in a haystack," Mather said of the discovery process. "We've screened over 160 whole proteins from the salivary glands of blacklegged ticks that transmit the Lyme disease bacterium, and from thousands of peptides have gotten down to 52 peptide epitopes of potential interest," he said. "We screen the tick proteins in the computer to see which are predicted to bind to T-cells."
The researchers have found that about half of the predicted peptide epitopes actually react and stimulate the immune system of "humanized" mice (mice often used in medical research that carry human genes, cells, tissues, or organs).
The next steps? Finding those peptides that are most protective, arranging them in an optimized sequence motif, and establishing an optimized formulation and delivery strategy.
"That's still a lot to do," Mather added.
Indeed, the process of getting vaccines from the lab to doctor's office usually takes several years.
In the meantime, researchers are working on other ways to prevent Lyme disease: tick repellent clothing can deter ticks from biting, culling the deer population can cut down the number of disease-transmitting ticks, and better diagnostic tests could halt the progress of the disease.
The CDC advises people to wear tick repellent, check for ticks, shower after spending time in tick-infested areas and report symptoms (fever, rash) to a doctor. Most cases of Lyme disease can be successfully treated with early detection and antibiotics.