The G. Magnotta Lyme Research Lab charts a course for success

It’s rare for a microbiology lab to make headlines in the mainstream media, but the G. Magnotta Lyme Research Lab managed to do just that in 2020 following the publication of its landmark paper on the complex issues surrounding the microbiology of Lyme disease.

With that publication, the lab proved to the world that it has come a long way since it was established at the University of Guelph in 2017 following a decade of fundraising initiatives by its primary funder, the G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-borne Diseases. The University of Guelph was chosen by the foundation as the location for its lab due to the institution’s expertise in zoonotic disease research and its dedication to the use of advanced DNA and molecular analysis technologies that will be critical to gaining a better understanding of Lyme bacteria and its impact on human health.

Since its inception, the G. Magnotta Lyme Research Lab has been billed as Canada’s first facility to use evidence-based translational medicine in developing diagnostic tests and treatments for Lyme disease and related tick-borne illnesses. For those of you unfamiliar with translational medicine, it’s a branch of biomedical research that takes a multidisciplinary approach to tackling the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases by pooling resources, expertise and techniques from multiple fields.

Under the direction of director Melanie Wills, the research lab has included community engagement in studies designed to generate epidemiological, biochemical, and microbiological data deemed vital to creating host-pathogen models and designing new diagnostic tests.

Wills, an award-winning researcher thanks to her discovery of the over-expression of a signalling protein in brain tumours, received her PhD in molecular and cellular biology from University of Guelph in 2016 and did her post-doctoral studies in the lab of well-known biologist and tick researcher Vett Lloyd at Mount Allison University. While at the Lloyd Lab, Wills demonstrated the value of using nested PCR to detect Borrelia burgdorferi in ticks.

Upon being installed at the head of the Magnotta lab, Wills assembled a multidisciplinary research team whose expertise spans microbiology, biochemistry, and genetics. Individually and collectively they are engaged in studying the molecular signatures that are produced when human cells are exposed to borrelia bacteria and the ways in which new Borrelia burgdorferi strains are created in response to environmental stressors. They are also evaluating the genetic factors that make some people more susceptible to chronic Lyme disease symptoms, developing improved diagnostic testing platforms, studying host-pathogen interactions and investigating Borrelia burgdorferi’s legendary ability to alter its shape and size in response to a variety of stressors.

Less than three years into its work, the lab had already published the remarkably comprehensive paper alluded to at the beginning of this post. That paper examined the current level of scientific knowledge on the biology and microbiology of Borrelia burgdorferi and the many challenges the bacteria’s biological complexity create for the accurate diagnosis and effective treatment of Lyme disease. It was jointly authored by the lab’s scientists and contains information gathered from more than 350 peer-reviewed research papers published in North America and Europe over the past 40 years. In doing so, it shines a bright spotlight on the many areas of Lyme research where our collective knowledge falls well short of the mark.

The lab’s scientists also participated in a paper spearheaded by researchers at SUNY Buffalo who are developing a liposomal (fat bubbles) delivery system to use in the creation of a Lyme vaccine, therapeutic treatments for Lyme disease, and the development of molecular tools that can be used in the study of the bacteria in lab settings. Magnotta scientists tested the effectiveness of the newly developed delivery system using the lab’s Lyme borrelia strain reference bank.

A primary concern for the lab is the roughly 10% to 40% of patients who develop chronic symptoms following antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease. That concern led them to enrol patients in a study beginning in 2018 that sought to get a better handle on the experiences of Canadians who have been diagnosed and treated for chronic Lyme disease.

Since then, the lab has published the results of a survey that delved into the health impact on mothers and children of Lyme disease infection during pregnancy and a study that looked into how best to detect Lyme bacteria in whole blood samples (current testing looks for the bacteria in the serum potion of blood samples), concluding there is more Lyme bacteria present in platelets than in the plasma that is typically analyzed.

These days, the G. Magnotta Lyme Research Lab is operating a tick donation program that invites Canadians to submit ticks to the lab for use in researching the pathogens they carry using PCR, microbial culture, and other methods. Submitted ticks will subsequently be archived in a biobank for future research and any information gained from them could very well make its way into published research, student theses, or conference proceedings.

Originally published in The Lyme Report, Issue 26. Last updated June 23, 2023.