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Harvard student works with Queen’s University lab to design device for rapid screening of pathogens that cause Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses
Indumathi Prakash, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at Harvard University, is working remotely from home under the guidance of Dr. Robert Colautti, who heads a lab at Queen’s University devoted to the study of genetics and biological invasions. Prakash is helping to develop a first-of-its-kind device to quickly extract and purify DNA from ticks in the field as part of a project for rapid detection of pathogens using on-the-spot gene sequencing.
The research is part of a larger project (myLyme.ca), aimed at eliminating misdiagnosis of Lyme disease by integrating the personal stories of patients with cutting-edge tools in genome sequencing and computation.
The device designed by Prakash traps a tick in a small container where a special syringe extracts its DNA, which can then be used in a rapid test kit to identify specific pathogens or in a portable gene sequencer to characterize the entire microbiome. The approach is expected to provide positive identification of harmful bacteria in a matter of hours, compared to the 24 to 48 hours it typically takes when ticks suspected of carrying the disease are sent to a lab for analysis.
“The basic idea is that when patients are bitten by a disease-carrying tick, the sooner they are treated, the better the outcome,” says Dr. Colautti, noting that the long-term goal of the project is to make it possible to test ticks in a field environment, such as a doctor’s clinic or hospital setting.
As deer ticks continue to show up across Ontario in greater number, the provincial government is cautioning people to check their skin and clothes after spending time outdoors because the parasites typically remain attached to the skin after biting for a period of up to 10 days.
If one is found, the recommendation is to gently remove it with tweezers and put it in a sealed container in the freezer, after which it can be sent for analysis. A common treatment for someone bitten by an infected tick is a high dose of antibiotics.
The problem, says Dr. Colautti, is that some doctors wait too long to treat an infection, while others prescribe antibiotics as a precautionary measure rather than waiting for lab results to confirm the presence of Lyme disease.
“A strong dose of antibiotics makes sense from the perspective of treating an individual patient, but if it turns out you didn’t get infected, there are concerns about overuse of antibiotics and the potential to promote the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment,” he explains. “Our ultimate goal is to provide a point-of-care screening tool for ticks to ensure doctors have the information they need at their fingertips to make the best decision for the patient at the time.”
The novel approach, which is part of a larger collaboration by natural, health, and social scientists called The MyLyme Project (myLyme.ca), will also make it easier to rapidly test ticks in other settings like parks, private property, or veterinary offices, to more thoroughly assess their risks, he adds.
“Lyme disease is a growing problem in Canada and we’re still learning about it,” Dr. Colautti says. “Right now we’re screening ticks regularly in the lab for known pathogens, but there’s also potential for new pathogens to be introduced and this approach will help us to quickly identify those as well.”
Prakash is one of 1,075 students — from Brazil, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, Taiwan, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States — taking part in the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program this summer to help solve complex problems across a range of industry sectors, from healthcare and wellness, to robotics, technology and the environment.
Designed to foster international research links and boost Canada’s economy, the 12-week internship normally entails travel to work alongside Canadian researchers, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this summer’s program is happening remotely.
Prakash’s internship is part of a partnership between Mitacs and Fulbright Canada, signed in 2019, which will bring up to 75 senior U.S. undergraduate students over three years to conduct research in Canada through the Mitacs Globalink program.
Despite the distance, Prakash says the opportunity to participate in the program is providing her with new scientific challenges. After being diagnosed with Lyme disease as a child, she also has a personal interest in preventing tick-borne diseases.
“Unfortunately in my case, I suffered with arthritis as a complication of Lyme disease for six years. That experience got me thinking about what I could do to help prevent it from happening to others,” Prakash says. “It’s really cool to work on a problem that makes me think outside of the box and be creative.”
Though she would rather be experiencing Canada firsthand, Prakash connects with her peers at the Queen’s University lab each week through regular video calls. They are 3D printing prototypes to test, and providing feedback so she can refine the design. The goal is to have a prototype device finalized by the time her internship ends in August.
According to her supervisor, the program has contributed to improving research outcomes. It has also given Prakash the opportunity to virtually network with other Globalink student participants from around the world.
“The Mitacs Globalink program is an excellent way to expose Canadian students to top-notch researchers from different parts of the world who bring different perspectives and life experiences to their work,” Dr. Colautti says. “The ability to collaborate with some of the brighter, more creative and more energetic students available worldwide is helping us to reach our research goals sooner.
Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.
We are also grateful to our international partners. In 2021-2022, Mitacs is pleased to work with partners in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Singapore, Taiwan, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States to support Globalink (see full list of partners of the Globalink Research Internship and the Globalink Research Award).
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