Researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) will use a new $2.4 million federal grant to study genetic systems of the bacterium that causes tick-borne relapsing fever to better understand their molecular functions and reveal possible drug targets.
UAMS’ Jon Blevins, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology, is leading the four-year study funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Although they were identified over 100 years ago, scientists know very little about the spiral-shaped bacteria that cause the relapsing fever infection, which develops when bacteria are transmitted from ticks into their animal hosts, Blevins said.
“Our team now has the ability to answer a lot of questions through the power of molecular genetics,” he said, adding that, “UAMS’ state-of-the-art DNA and Next Generation Sequencing Core will play a critical role.”
Soft ticks are the primary vectors for tick-borne relapsing fever bacteria, like Borrelia turicatae. While hard ticks can transmit related Borrelia bacteria, these ticks are better known as vectors for other more common tick-borne infections, including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
In the United States, tick-borne relapsing fever has been reported in 15 states where soft ticks live: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although potentially fatal, tick-borne relapsing fever infections are relatively rare, with fewer than 100 cases reported annually in the United States, Blevins said.
“I’m told by people who have had it that it’s the worst fever they’ve ever experienced,” he said.
The research team includes collaborators at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and University of Wisconsin-Madison.