Dr. Sam Telford On Ticks: Expect A Lyme Vaccine "Very Soon"

JohnCarl McGrady •

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A Lyme disease vaccine for humans will be available within the next five years, according to Dr. Sam Telford of Tufts University.

“It will be effective, it will be approved,” he said. “We will have a vaccine very soon.”

Telford, an epidemiologist who specializes in tick-borne illnesses, has been working on developing a Lyme vaccine since 1994 when he began soliciting volunteers on Nantucket for human trials for the first Lyme vaccine.

Telford claimed that one of the main obstacles to the Lyme vaccine in the past has been commercial viability and remarked on another tick-borne illness that “[scientists] could make a Powassan vaccine tomorrow” if they had funding.

Telford’s remarks came during the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s 58th annual meeting Tuesday night at the Nantucket Hotel, where he spoke about the importance of Nantucket to research on tick-borne illnesses.

During his presentation, Telford also cautioned that efforts to genetically engineer Lyme-resistant mice have hit an unexpected stumbling block and may not roll out as fast as previous reports have claimed. In theory, if mice could not contract Lyme disease, they could not pass it onto deer ticks, which would drive rates of Lyme disease among humans down.

However, although researchers have managed to edit the genes of some white mice as proof of concept, white mice evolutionary diverged from the white-footed mice traditionally seen as the primary vectors for Lyme disease 30 million years ago.

According to Telford, editing white-footed mice to be Lyme resistant has proved challenging. “It’s going to take a while,” he said. “It will be an uphill battle to get regulatory approval.”

Nantucket first became a hotbed for research into tick-borne illnesses over 50 years ago, when the first cases of babesiosis in humans were identified on the island. Since then, Nantucket has been the site of research on tick-borne illnesses leading to over 60 peer-reviewed studies, including research that identified the primary vectors of both babesiosis and Lyme disease.

In the last 50 years, the number of babesiosis cases on the island has doubled, and the rates of other tick-borne illnesses have also increased significantly. Telford attributes this to the larger, denser populations of deer and humans on the island, and the increase in forested areas, which deer prefer as habitats over meadows and sandplain grasslands.

While 2022 has seen a smaller deer tick population than most years, due in part to the severe drought gripping much of the northeastern United States, Telford says that tick management efforts over the last 50 years have been largely ineffectual. He urged the Town and local conservation groups to adopt more aggressive methods, such as dramatically reducing the deer population and the island’s forest cover.

Telford also spoke about the recent increase in sightings of Lone Star ticks on Nantucket. Lone Star ticks can carry a variety of dangerous illnesses, including hemorrhagic fever and alpha-gal syndrome, which makes infected subjects allergic to red meat.

However, Telford emphasized that Lone Star tick larvae have not been found on Nantucket, suggesting that birds may have carried adult ticks from the established population on Tuckernuck.

He added that Lyme disease and the other tick-borne illnesses recorded on Nantucket are already enough of a problem to warrant a strong response from the Town.

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