Grant to aid U tick disease research

Sam Boeser

Researchers at the University will try to slow the spread of a tick-borne disease with a $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Anaplasmosis spreads to humans and animals through tick bites before infecting the immune system.

Tick populations are especially large in areas just north of the Twin Cities and in western Wisconsin, which is a reason the disease is of concern, said Michael Herron, a scientist in the department of entomology.

“We’re trying to understand what is so magic about this tick bite,” Herron said. “People are moving out to more suburb and rural areas, and that is putting them in contact with ticks more often.”

The disease was first diagnosed by a Duluth, Minn., doctor in 1993 and has since spread to many states, Herron said. In 2003, there were 78 reported cases of the disease in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The new funding will be put toward researchers’ salaries and new equipment to study the movement of the disease within human cells.

A new microscope system is being purchased to do time-lapse movies of the disease as it spreads from cell to cell. This will help researchers determine how the disease adapts to its hosts.

Researchers involved with the study include five University researchers and one former University researcher now working for the Food and Drug Administration.

University researchers first studied the disease in 2000, concentrating on how the bacteria developed within infected ticks. This new research will expand the study to look at how the bacteria move within humans from cell to cell.

“The grant that we have now will focus on what happens at the time the tick bites a human,” said Ulrike Munderloh, a research associate in the department of entomology and principal investigator for the study.

The bacteria are unique in their ability to infect neutrophils, which are the cells that attack bacteria in the human body.

The disease is spread through deer tick bites, the same ticks that transmit Lyme disease. It is possible for humans to contract both diseases at the same time, Herron said. Eight percent of those infected with anaplasmosis in 2003 also contracted Lyme disease, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Anaplasmosis is fatal in approximately 5 percent of reported cases. Symptoms of the disease include fever, nausea, muscle aches and confusion.

The disease is still relatively unknown to the general public and its symptoms can be similar to the flu.

“It’s very difficult to diagnose,” Herron said. “But once it is, it’s easy to treat with a simple antibiotic.”

The disease has also been identified in Europe.

Researchers said the disease likely transfers to ticks when they feed off small rodents. Ticks and their larvae then contract the disease before spreading it to their next feeding grounds.

However, Munderloh and other researchers are short of knowing exactly where the disease started.