Lyme disease sickens about 300,000 people per year, according to an August report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite the fact that only 30,000 or so of those cases are reported annually.
But Memphis-based US Biologic and University of Tennessee Health Science Center professor Maria Gomes-Solecki are working on vaccination pellets for mice that would prevent the disease from spreading to humans.
Last month, US Biologic won $1 million in the Global Food and Health Innovation Challenge, a competitive investment challenge that attracted 220 applicants from across the world. They plan to use the funds to finish the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval process.
Lyme disease is spread to humans through ticks and can cause fever, headache, and fatigue. If left untreated, the disease can affect the joints, heart, and central nervous system.
"The people who get Lyme disease more often are children in the five to 10 years old age group. They're outside rolling in the grass and playing, and they're exposed to ticks more often than adults," said US Biologic CEO Mason Kauffman.
Although humans get Lyme disease from ticks, the ticks get the disease from mice, so the vaccination pellets will target mice. They can be spread on the ground in public areas and residential lawns. When mice eat the pellets, they will be vaccinated from the disease. The pellets do not harm the mice, and because it prevents Lyme disease, it may actually make them healthier.
"We would work with the USDA wildlife services team to build a protection barrier to control the spread of Lyme disease," Kauffman said. "And the government will want to take care of public lands, like parks, hiking trails, campgrounds, and playgrounds."
Gomes-Solecki began working on the vaccine 10 years ago. Last year, US Biologic was formed to help her commercialize the product. The vaccine is currently moving through the USDA approval process, so Kauffman can't say exactly when it will be available.
But once the pellets are approved, they will be the first technology aimed at preventing Lyme disease. A similar vaccination pellet called Raboral, marketed by animal health company Merial in Georgia, has been successful in preventing rabies in raccoons, coyotes, and other wildlife.
"They started that 10 years ago, and they've been so successful that there were only two cases of human rabies in the U.S. last year," Kauffman said.
For now, the only way to prevent Lyme disease is to wear protective clothing, like long sleeves and pants, and to check one's body for ticks after leaving a tick-infested area.
Although US Biologic is starting with the Lyme disease vaccine, Kauffman said they plan to branch out into vaccination against other zoonotic (from animals) diseases.
"We work with several universities and scientists because, although Lyme disease is where we're starting, we can add additional disease control to these pellets. And we can target different animals to have an impact on other zoonotic diseases," Kauffman said.