The women leading Lyme research in Canada

October is Women’s History Month in Canada and while much attention has been paid recently to the women who are, for the most part, successfully leading Canada’s COVID-19 response, women leading research efforts into ticks and tick-borne illnesses in this country have gone relatively unnoticed. 

But as women’s names have begun appearing on research papers with greater frequency, there has been a interesting shift in overall dynamics. First, research in the past few years has placed far greater emphasis on patient-centred approaches. There has also been a shift towards multidisciplinary networks that encourage collaboration amongst diverse sets of researchers. And we have seen a push towards increased transparency, with researchers being far more willing to share their data with each other and the public.

So I’d like to take a moment to shine some light on five researchers whose work has captured my attention in recent years.

1. Vett Lloyd

Professor, Department of Biology, Mount Allison University

With decades of experience in genetics and epigenetics, Lloyd has become a leading voice in the molecular make up of ticks and their microbiomes, tick-vectored pathogens, and serology. She is the driving force behind the Mount Allison Lyme Research Network — which takes a multidisciplinary, patient-centred approach to tackling tick-borne illnesses — and has become a popular interview subject due to her sterling scientific credentials and strong, sometimes contentious, opinions.

Much of Lloyd’s research covers territory that you would expect of a biologist, such as uncovering evidence of that formerly distinct tick species are hybridizing, providing data used to predict the future range expansion of blacklegged ticks, and developing novel lab techniques. But she has also been involved in groundbreaking research that you wouldn’t normally associate with a biologist. She's co-authored papers on treatment outcomes for Lyme disease patients, the mental health impact on parents of children suffering from chronic Lyme disease, the reasons patients seek Lyme disease treatment outside of the conventional healthcare system, and the potential benefit of citizen science for Lyme research. Lloyd was also behind a much reported controversial attempt to determine the true number of Lyme disease patients in this country that received a lot of pushback from public health officials. 

2. Katie Clow

Assistant professor, Department of Population Medicine, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph

Clow comes at Lyme disease research from an interesting perspective. In addition to being a doctor of veterinary medicine, she holds a PhD in pathobiology and undertook internships in zoonoses and food-borne diseases at the World Health Organization and the Global Disease Detection Centre of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Focussing on the ecology and epidemiology of ticks and tick-borne diseases, Clow takes a collaborative approach to nailing down the role that ticks and their animal hosts play in human health.

In recent years, Clow has co-authored papers proposing distribution models for blacklegged ticks and Borrelia burgdorferi, helped establish a framework for conducting adaptive Lyme disease surveillance, mapped the distribution of lone star ticks, assessed the efficacy of flagging in identifying tick populations, identified factors that influence blacklegged tick distribution in Ontario, studied the micro-biomes of blacklegged ticks and dog ticks, and assessed regional Lyme disease risk.

Clow frequently shares her knowledge of ticks and tick-borne illnesses with the media. 

3. Melanie Wills

Director, G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab, University of Guelph

An award-winning researcher, Wills has a PhD in molecular and cellular biology and is a protege of Vett Lloyd in whose lab she demonstrated the value of using nested PCR to detect Borrelia burgdorferi in ticks

Under Wills’ direction, the Magnotta lab is Canada’s first facility to use translational medicine to develop diagnostic tests and treatments for Lyme disease and related tick-borne illnesses. A primary focus of the lab is determining why roughly 10% to 40% of patients diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease go on to develop chronic symptoms. To that end, the lab is studying the molecular signatures produced when human cells are exposed to borrelia bacteria, how Borrelia burgdorferi creates novel strains in response to environmental stressors, what genetic factors make some people more susceptible to chronic Lyme disease symptoms, how Borrelia burgdorferi alters its shape and size when challenged by pharmaceuticals or the immune system, and what healthcare obstacles are faced by Canadian Lyme disease patients.

The lab’s best known accomplishment to date has been a comprehensive paper examining the biology and microbiology of Borrelia burgdorferi and the many challenges the bacterium’s biological complexity cause in the race to create accurate diagnostics and effective treatments for Lyme disease. With this paper, Wills and her colleagues shone a bright spotlight on the many areas of Lyme research where our collective knowledge falls well short of the mark.

4. Manisha Kulkarni

Associate Professor, School of Epidemiology of Public Health, University of Ottawa

Kulkarni has a PhD in medical entomology as well as a BSc in environmental biology and is committed to finding better ways to prevent and/or control the spread of vector-borne illnesses. She is the director of the INSIGHT Interdisciplinary Spatial Informatics for Global Health program at the University of Ottawa, which identifies “pathogens in disease vectors using molecular diagnostic approaches, conducts epidemiological studies, and performs geospatial analysis of health and environmental data”.

Although she is arguably best known in scientific realms for her extensive work researching malaria in Africa, she is increasingly becoming respected for her contributions to Lyme disease research in Canada, which have included mapping the genetic background of blacklegged ticks collected in this country, developing tick distribution models, determining how landscape impacts tick density, nailing down how soon Borrelia burgdorferi becomes embedded in blacklegged tick colonies once they have been established, and uncovering environmentally sound ways to control the spread of ticks.

Kulkarni first gained public attention when her research identified significant numbers of Lyme infected ticks in the Ottawa region at a time when local public health officials were skeptical that such populations existed.

5. Tara Moriarty

Associate Professor, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto

This award-winning researcher has a doctorate in anatomy and cell biology. She studies infectious diseases and immunopathology at her own multidisciplinary research laboratory at the University of Toronto where she leads studies into the mechanisms that allow Borrelia burgdorferi to disseminate throughout its host’s body by way of the bloodstream. We already know Lyme bacteria can do this, but we don’t know how it does it. Figuring that out could result in the development of therapies that are designed to short-circuit Borrelia burgdorferi’s ability to move into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body.

Formerly a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of George Chaconas at the University of Calgary — who was at that time the Canada Research Chair in Lyme Borreliosis —Moriarty has produced some intriguing videos that use live cell imaging to show Borrelia burgdorferi attaching to and escaping from blood vessel walls.

More recently, Moriarty has undertaken groundbreaking research into the impact diabetes and obesity have on the susceptibility of people to Lyme disease and the impact of tick-borne disease on bones.

Originally published in The Lyme Report, Issue 33.