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Braintree teen’s tick study makes CDC take notice

Work could update Lyme disease prevention tips

Jacqueline Flynn’s research on killing deer ticks won a first prize at the Braintree High School science fair.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

Jacqueline Flynn’s research on killing deer ticks won a first prize at the Braintree High School science fair.

BRAINTREE — Jacqueline Flynn knew she was on to something, when, one by one, the ticks began to die. The science sleuth had been holed up in front of a clothes dryer for hours, watching and waiting as small mesh bags full of blacklegged deer ticks whirled.

How long can ticks resist heat before perishing? she wondered.

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Not long, it seems.

That discovery by the 16-year-old Braintree High School student has won top local science prizes and has caught the attention of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s massive health watchdog.

As part of its tick prevention recommendations, CDC literature urges tumbling tick-infected clothing in a dryer on high heat for at least an hour as one way to eliminate the bloodsucking arachnids. But the agency had not studied the method further.

Flynn’s work concluded that it should take only five minutes at low heat.

“This could have significant implications for Lyme disease prevention,’’ said Christina Nelson, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s office in Fort Collins, Colo., who became intrigued by the teenager’s finding. “If it is true that five minutes in a dryer kills ticks vs. a full hour, that is a lot easier for people, and that could also spark further investigations.”

The CDC’s attention has surprised Flynn, who began her research as a project for her 10th-grade science class. She had only stumbled upon the heat experiment after trying to figure out how to adequately remove ticks from her own clothing.

“I’m really surprised,’’ said Flynn. “I didn’t realize it would go that far.”

Lyme disease is the most commonly reported tick-borne illness in the United States. More than 22,000 people were afflicted in 2010, according to the CDC.

The bacterium is passed via tick bites onto people trekking in woodsy areas. Massachusetts is one of 11 states — along with Maine, New Hampshire, and New York — with the nation’s highest confirmed Lyme disease cases, the CDC said.

Flynn initially thought of testing organic methods to kill deer ticks. But after collecting ticks in the Blue Hills, she worried that she had them all over her clothes and wondered if there were ways to get rid of them quickly.

She considered washing her clothes but discovered that that would not be enough. She then stumbled upon a recommendation by the CDC.

“When I saw the one-hour recommendation I thought, that sounds crazy to me because they are such small animals with such small surface areas that it should take less than an hour to kill them,’’ she said.

Flynn ordered 50 ticks from a Oklahoma University lab. She placed them in small mesh bags and threw them in the dryer — letting them whirl at temperatures ranging from 180 to 130 degrees. She found that even on low heat for five minutes, all of the ticks were dead.

“I found her experiment to be fascinating after she came downstairs and . . . said ‘I can’t keep these animals alive for more than five minutes,’ ” said her father, Patrick Flynn. “I knew something was up, because there was a massive discrepancy between what she was finding and what the widely published recommendations are.”

Patrick Flynn began talking up the experiment to his friends and co-workers. Soon word spread on blogs, in the local paper, and around Braintree. She contacted the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, where a parks official promised to share her findings with staff.

Jackie Flynn was a first place winner at her high school’s science fair and came in second in the regionals. The state science fair will be held at MIT in May.

“None of us really appreciated how poorly understood this was,’’ said Stephen Ribisi, Flynn’s science teacher. “I’m very proud of her. I played a very small role in this. But I’m tickled to have her as a student. This doesn’t happen very often in a teacher’s career.”

Among its recommendations, the CDC urges repellants, showers immediately after being exposedto ticks, and a full-body check to prevent tick bites.

Recently, Nelson and two tick experts from the CDC called Jackie Flynn to discuss her experiment. All were impressed with Flynn, her methodology and findings, Nelson said.

Nelson cautioned that much more research and testing need to be done before the CDC can recommend the low-heat treatment. For one thing, Nelson said that Flynn’s experiment only included adult ticks, but nymph ticks, of the younger variety, transmit disease and cause more of the illness because they are smaller and harder to detect.

Flynn will need to work with local researchers to expand and replicate her experiment, and find collaborators who will test lower amounts of heat in a variety of situations. The findings must be published in a peer-reviewed academic journal before it can be seriously considered, Nelson said.

Still, she said Flynn’s work is exceptional. “It’s very exciting,’’ she said. “It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen very often. It’s great preliminary information.”

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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