Johns Hopkins University Unveils New Lyme Tracker

By Noah Johnston

Geographic Information System

The future of Lyme data is already upon us thanks to Johns Hopkins University. During a symposium hosted on April 29th, the Lyme and Tickborne Diseases Research and Education Institute announced the launch of their new website and Lyme disease map.

Spurred on by the success of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) COVID-19 dashboard, which records data in real time, the Lyme and Tickborne Disease Research and Education Institute configured a breakthrough concept known as the Lyme Tracker. According to Dr. Frank Curriero, Director of the Spatial Science for Public Health Center, this interactive map “leverages a comprehensive set of data layers” to provide the most up to date and accurate information on Lyme disease cases.

Accepting Adversity

While the work is cutting edge, the Hopkins team highlighted some of the major flaws in data, of which the Lyme community is only too aware. Their website states, “Reported cases are key to showing trends and geographic patterns, but they do not capture the magnitude of underreporting, which is expected to be more than tenfold.”  Additionally, the website notes that Massachusetts no longer reports cases to the CDC, even though it is an endemic state for Lyme disease.

To combat these inefficiencies, the Institute plans to leverage additional data sets to show the growing prevalence of tickborne diseases. The data currently being tracked includes case counts and rates, environmental and socio-demographic determinants of Lyme, and even Google trends—locations where people have searched for Lyme related information. In the future, they plan to include data on testing rates and financial burden by partnering with insurance companies and analyzing data. For now, the maps are focused mainly on reported cases from the US and Canada, but they are planning to expand worldwide in the near future. 

Reported cases are key to showing trends and geographic patterns, but they do not capture the magnitude of underreporting, which is expected to be more than tenfold.

Johns Hopkins Lyme and Tick-borne Diseases Research and Education Institute

Taking Science in a New Direction

Hopkins is uniquely positioned to address Lyme and ticks because of their history tackling major issues caused by zoonotic diseases. Dr. Arturo Casadevall, Acting Director of the Johns Hopkins Lyme and Tickborne Diseases Research and Education Institute, discussed the many advances made by the Johns Hopkins Malarial Research Institute. Through lab work, Hopkins scientists were able to stop a mosquito’s ability to transmit malaria by changing its microbiome. They were also able to neuter mosquitos and release the infertile insects back into the wild in order to tank mosquito populations.

Advances like these can catalyze advances in other fields, and Dr. Casadevall expects to see similar work done with ticks. However,  the work would encompass other methods not used in malaria research. For instance, his scientists plan to experiment with tick stomachs, examining the microbiome to see if they can breed species resistant to borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

Advancing research into Lyme and COVID was also discussed. Dr. John Auccott, Director of Johns Hopkins Medicine Lyme Disease Research Center, expressed his excitement at the flood of federal funding caused by the pandemic. He shared the inside scoop about his team’s current study in which blood samples from JHU biobanks are put “side by side with COVID patients” in order to “compare the biology that may be driving the illness.” While the study is in its early stages, it is clear that the focus on research to address persistent Lyme is front and center at Johns Hopkins. 

Building a Safer Future

The Lyme and Tickborne Diseases Research and Education Institute seeks to advance understanding of the geography of tick-borne diseases, improve awareness across multiple stakeholders, and motivate and support future research collaborations and communication. 

Lyme Tracker was developed to ensure that doctors and scientists are on the leading edge of information about tickborne diseases. Currently, Lyme data takes years to be collected and analyzed. This leads to a gap in understanding about where tick habitats are located, and results in missed diagnoses. Lyme Tracker will allow data to flow instantaneously, meaning doctors working in emerging regions will be more likely to identify tickborne illnesses in a timely fashion. 

Watch the Symposium