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Kim Lewis

Northeastern researcher to identify new treatments for Lyme with help from $1.5M grant

March 21, 2016—(Boston, MA) Northeastern University Distinguished Professor Kim Lewis has received a $1.5 million grant from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation to develop better treatments for Lyme disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are over 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported each year, and a small percentage of those patients—about 10-15 percent—develop a debilitating chronic condition known as Post-Treatment Lyme Disease (PTLDS). Despite these numbers, which are continuously growing, there are still no drugs available to combat the chronic form of the disease.

Lewis and the Cohen Foundation hope to change this. “With the generous support of the Cohen Foundation, we are well positioned to identify an effective treatment for Lyme disease,” said Lewis.

DISCOVERING NEW, LONG-AWAITED TREATMENTS

Lewis, who directs the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern, seeks to achieve two major goals with the help of funds from the Cohen Foundation: Develop a treatment for chronic Lyme disease, and discover drugs that will eradicate the pathogen at early stages of the disease, which will prevent the development of PTLDS. “Nobody has been developing drugs against Borrelia, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease,” said Lewis. “Antibiotics to treat this pathogen have been borrowed from other applications, but Borrelia is unique. Its biology is very different, so this borrowing approach from other pathogens is not optimal. We are looking for compounds that specifically hit Borrelia.”

The Cohen Foundation recently made a major commitment to Lyme disease treatments by donating $6.5 million toward Lyme research, including work being done in Lewis’ lab.

THE PROBLEM STARTS WITH PERSISTER CELLS

Most people diagnosed with Lyme disease in the early stages recover completely, but a fairly large proportion of people do not recover and require another prolonged treatment of antibiotics, which may not be effective. Currently, these risks are hard to identify at the first doctor’s visit. “I find this really striking that you go to the doctor and you get a treatment of doxycycline for a week or two and there are no alarm bells that there is a 15 percent probability that your life as you know it has ended,” said Lewis.

Lewis and members of his lab discovered that there are similarities between Borrelia and other pathogens causing chronic infections: persisters­—dormant cells that are highly tolerant of antibiotics. “Conventional antibiotics don’t do much when it comes to killing persisters,” said Lewis. “One of the things we are focusing on is figuring out ways to get rid of persisters.”

Lewis’ lab has developed a treatment called “pulse dosing,” and the idea behind it is simple: When the antibiotic is delivered the first time, the persisters survive. Researchers then allow the antibiotic to flush through the system, prompting the persisters to wake up. That’s when researchers hit them again with the antibiotics. “We do that a couple of times, and you get complete sterilization,” said Lewis. This technique is expected to go to human trials later this year.

In addition to treating Lyme, this pulse-dosing technique could potentially be used for other chronic diseases, such as MRSA, and tuberculosis.

Lewis’ lab also aims to discover new drugs that will be more effective against Borrelia than what’s currently available.

Lewis is confident that with the help of funding from organizations, such as the Cohen Foundation, a better and more effective treatment for Lyme disease is possible. “We have been successful in finding effective therapeutics for other chronic diseases which are now in development, and that experience will help us solve the challenging problem of chronic Lyme” said Lewis.

About the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern

The Antimicrobial Discovery Center (ADC) at Northeastern University studies persister cells and uncultured bacteria. Persisters are dormant variants of regular cells, which are tolerant to antibiotics and responsible for recalcitrance of biofilm infections. The ADC has identified a number of mechanisms for persister formation, and the first compound that kills them, acyldepsipeptide.

About the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation

The Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation is committed to inspiring philanthropy and community service—with a special interest in children’s health, education, veterans, and the arts—by creating awareness, offering guidance and leading by example to show the world what giving can do.

Since its launch in 2001, the foundation has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts to organizations that seek to directly provide better health and education for our nation’s children, lift up our veterans, and support the arts.

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