Bay Area Lyme Foundation, the leading national nonprofit funder of innovative Lyme disease research, today announced that the winners of its 2017 Emerging Leader Award, are James J. Collins, PhD, Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yuko Nakajima, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Brandeis University. Dr. Collins was awarded a $250,000 grant to research an RNA direct detection diagnostic for early Lyme disease, while Dr. Nakajima received a $100,000 grant to investigate potential treatments to block immune evasion by the bacteria causing Lyme disease.

Borrelia burgdorferi/CDC
Borrelia burgdorferi/CDC

“Lyme disease receives little research attention compared to the scientific challenges it presents, so leveraging learnings from different diseases into the research of Lyme disease is critical,” added Laure Woods, president, Bay Area Lyme Foundation.

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Because the most commonly used diagnostic for Lyme disease misses up to 60% of cases of early stage Lyme disease, Dr. Collins seeks to develop a more effective, rapid, inexpensive diagnostic for Lyme disease. His plan is to use RNA technology that has proven effective in developing diagnostics for antibiotic resistance markers, the Ebola virus, and the Zika virus. His lab recently developed a platform for direct detection of RNA that combines programmable molecular sensors called RNA toehold switches with an expression system that can be freeze dried onto paper discs; his goal is to apply this technology to better diagnose Lyme disease in early-stage patients.

“This award affords our team the opportunity to become actively engaged members of the Lyme disease research community as we try to unravel the mysteries of this illness and work to develop a rapid, inexpensive diagnostic test for early Lyme disease,” said James J. Collins, PhD, Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering & Science Professor, Department of Biological Engineering Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Collins is also affiliated with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University.

Dr. Nakajima’s ELA project focuses on gene conversion. As in cancer, gene conversion was recently shown to be involved in the ability of B. burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, to change its surface proteins and thus keep the immune system from manufacturing antibodies that match the currently expressed proteins. This ability to change its proteins is mediated by an unusual DNA structure called a G-quadruplex. A drug blocking G-quadruplex activity in cancer cells is currently in clinical trials. Dr. Nakajima will study the G-quadruplex in B. burgdorferi and then test different small molecules to detect which may be most able to block this coping mechanism.

“The bacteria that causes Lyme disease is very complex and I am determined to find a scientific solution that will stop its mechanisms,” stated Dr. Nakajima, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the lab of James E. Haber at Brandeis University. She also performed postdoctoral research at Rockefeller University and served as a research assistant at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.     

The Emerging Leader Awards from Bay Area Lyme Foundation—made possible by a generous donation from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation —are given annually and designed to be awarded to promising scientists who have identified a defined approach to improved diagnostics or therapies for Lyme disease.