UTHSC scientist partners with entrepreneurs to prevent Lyme disease

The newest scientific weapon against Lyme disease is coming out of the University of Tennessee in Memphis. Maria Gomes-Solecki, doctor of veterinary medicine and assistant professor in microbiology, immunology and biochemistry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, has developed a groundbreaking vaccine that prevents the transmission of Lyme disease – in mice.

While there are several methods for preventing Lyme disease, such as killing ticks and vaccinating pets, they can be toxic to humans, expensive and only effective at preventing the disease, not eliminating it.

Funded throughout her research by about $6 million in grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health, Gomes-Solecki spent 10 years in labs and the forests of Dutchess County, N.Y., working with her team on how to halt the transmission of Lyme disease by feeding vaccine pellets to white-footed mice. These vaccine pellets enabled them to develop antibodies to blood Borrelia, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

In the Northwest and upper Midwest, these mice are the primary transmitters of the disease to young ticks. When the ticks fed on the vaccinated mice, they ingested antibodies that killed the Borrelia and halted the transmission cycle of Lyme disease. As fewer ticks in the region became infected, the human risk of contracting Lyme disease in that area was reduced.

Gomes-Solecki and her teams eventually conducted tests and control field trials over a five-year period. After the first year of treatment, test fields showed a 23 percent reduction in tick infection rate. By the fifth year of treatment, that rate was 76 percent.

Once the research was complete, Gomes-Solecki says she spent two years writing “Reservoir Targeted Vaccine Against Borrelia burgdorferi: A New Strategy to Prevent Lyme disease Transmission” for publication in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. Research, however, was just the first step for Gomes-Selecki. Once that massive task was complete, she knew that her next step would be translating her findings into a business venture to find a market for her discovery.

She met Chris Przybyszewski at an event hosted by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, which develops and commercializes biotechnology. Soon after, she and Przybyszewski put together an executive team including herself, Przybyszewski as executive vice president, Mason Kauffman as president and CEO, Steve Zatechka as COO, and Dr. Hassan Zaraket, who acted as our Chief Science Officer. Together they created US Biologic, which will target markets such as health departments and other government agencies for the vaccine.

“I co-founded the company with the goal of producing this vaccine and bringing it to market. If it all works out, this company could create jobs for Memphians. I couldn’t ask for a more meaningful contribution to make to the city,” she said.

Meanwhile, depending on the time it takes to get licensing from the USDA, Gomes-Selecki’s oral bait could be in wide use from one to three years from now. “I am thrilled at the moment. It took toiling for 12 years in two different states (New York and Tennessee) with several teams of investigators as obsessive about excellence as I am, thankfully,” she said.

“Despite the many pitfalls we encountered along the way, I was able to keep the team together through great times of distress and bring this project to fruition. I have this sense of true accomplishment, and it is something that I know will make me proud for many years to come.”

By Erinn Figg
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