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RI HEALTH

R.I.-based Lyme disease center enrolling adults for an international study to improve testing

Current tests are designed to detect antibodies, not necessarily active illness. The study, spearheaded by the Lifespan Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Center at The Miriam Hospital and sponsored by Pfizer Inc., is aimed at finding better ways to diagnose the disease

An exterior of The Miriam Hospital, which is owned by Lifespan Corporation.
An exterior of The Miriam Hospital, which is owned by Lifespan Corporation.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — A Rhode Island hospital is enrolling residents who have active, acute Lyme disease into a new, international clinical research study to learn more about the condition.

The Lifespan Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Center at The Miriam Hospital is spearheading the study, which is sponsored by Pfizer Inc. The center’s director, Dr. Jennie Johnson, who is also an infectious disease specialist, said she is specifically interested in finding better diagnostics and testing for Lyme disease.

Johnson explained that most Lyme disease tests are designed to detect antibodies. But these antibodies can take weeks to develop after an infection and can also stay in the blood for months or years after the infection is gone, even after treatment.

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Dr. Jennie Johnson, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Lifespan Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Center at The Miriam Hospital.
Dr. Jennie Johnson, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Lifespan Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Center at The Miriam Hospital.Lifespan Corporation

“But the tests can’t differentiate if we were formerly infected or if we have an active illness,” said Johnson on Tuesday night. “So these tests can also remain positive [for Lyme disease] for years after the patient had active Lyme disease.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously said that it has supported the development of new tests because of the inaccuracies, and Pfizer has a study at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital in addition to the one at The Miriam. There are three other sites in the US recruiting patients, as well as sites in Canada and Europe, said Johnson.

The center at The Miriam is a multidisciplinary center entirely dedicated to the treatment of acute Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and other tick-borne diseases.

Johnson said all participants have to be at least 18 years old and have an active infection that have been taking antibiotics for less than two days. She said study participants, who will be reimbursed for any travel-related expenses, will undergo urine samples, blood samples, detailed history, and potentially a “very small” skin biopsy.

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Johnson said Rhode Island is an ideal location for the study since Lyme disease is really localized to the northeastern portion of the US.

“We are considered a ‘high incidence’ state,” she said.

According to the CDC, Rhode Island had 527 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 2019, compared to Massachusetts’ six cases.

Johnson said she hopes to recruit “at least 20 patients.” (Four have been enrolled so far.) The “traditional” season for tick-borne illnesses spans from May through October in Rhode Island. Lately, however, that season seems to be lasting longer.

“Over the last decade or more, there have been naturally more tick-borne infections,” she said, due to several different reasons, including the earth’s warming temperatures and the increased opportunity for exposure.

Those looking to participate in the study are asked to contact study coordinator Jimin Shin by calling 401-793-4317 or emailing jshin@lifespan.org.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.