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Discovery of the disease agent causing Lyme disease

1981

Challenge

When Lyme disease was first identified in rural Connecticut in 1975, the cause of its rheumatoid arthritis-like symptoms was unknown. Physicians suspected a virus was behind the outbreak, but—without knowing its true agent—attempts at further understanding the pathogenesis and possible treatments of Lyme disease were unsuccessful. 

Advance

In 1981, IRP researcher William Burgdorfer, Ph.D., at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Rocky Mountain Laboratories discovered spirochetes—a type of slim, spiral bacteria—in the midguts of deer ticks prevalent in the forests near where the infections were occurring. With further laboratory testing, he and colleagues at NIAID found that the bacteria, passed to humans via tick bites, were causing the mysterious Lyme disease, which is now recognized as the most common tick-borne illness in both the EU and USA.

Impact

The spirochete that causes Lyme disease was named after Dr. Burgdorfer—Borrelia burgdorferi—and since his seminal 1982 paper on its discovery more than 6,000 studies on clinical, epidemiological, and bacterial aspects of this disease have been published. With the knowledge that Lyme disease is carried by a bacterium, most patients treated with antibiotics can now achieve a full recovery.

Publications

Burgdorfer W, Barbour AG, Hayes SF, Benach JL, Grunwaldt E, Davis JP. (1982). Lyme disease-a tick-borne spirochetosis? Science. 216(4552), 1317-9.