Lyme disease is caused by bacteria spread by the bite of an infected deer tick. Most people in Maine probably know this already because just about everyone knows someone who has had Lyme. Maine has the highest incidence rate in the country — 87.9 cases per 100,000 — and York County’s rate of infection is higher than the state’s — 110.2 per 100,000 in 2014. Over 5,600 cases of Lyme disease were confirmed in Maine between 2010 and 2014
If diagnosed early, antibiotic treatment can be very effective in treating the symptoms of Lyme disease but Lyme is not always easily identified. If it is misdiagnosed and not treated promptly, Lyme can be a serious medical challenge. It is not uncommon for patients treated with a course of antibiotics to have lingering symptoms of fatigue, swelling, joint and muscle pain. In some cases, these symptoms can last for years.
Important as this disease is, it gets scant attention from medical researchers. Lyme is not a priority for federal funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. Thirty-thousand new cases a year may seem like a lot but compared to the incidence rates of cancer (1.6 million new cases each year), diabetes (1.4 million new cases each year) and heart disease (735 thousand heart attacks every year), it is small.
This reality is what introduced me to Meghan May, associate professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. Trained in Pathobiology and Bacteriology Dr. May, who lives in York, spends 70 percent of her time on research at UNE. Most of the rest of her time involves teaching medical students.
May’s research goes beyond Lyme disease. More generally, her work involves developing new tests and treatments for a variety of what some people have called orphan diseases; diseases not adopted for research because of their relative rarity. In the United States, the Rare Diseases Act of 2002 defined rare disease as those that affect fewer than 200,000 people nationwide. By that standard, Lyme is off the radar screen for most researchers — but not for Meghan May and her colleagues.
Their collaboration has led to the establishment of a York-based research institute launched by its board of directors just last week. The Seacoast Biomedical Science Institute (SBSI) promotes cross-disciplinary work between clinicians and medical researchers so that tests and treatments developed by laboratory-based researchers can be put to use in clinical settings. May noted that both researchers and clinicians are interested ultimately in patients — something researchers can too easily lose sight of.
I asked Meghan May how this fledgling institute would be able to compete for federal funds with places like Harvard Medical School or MGH. “We won’t,” she said. “SBSI is a non-profit 501(C)3 organization. At least at the outset, our support will come primarily from private donors rather than governmental agencies.” The team has already created a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds necessary to get SBSI off the ground (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/907128253/founding-the-seacoast-biomedical-science-institute ).
May also described a set of fee-for-service projects in which the work of the Institute could lead to the development of educational materials for use in advanced science courses. SBSI’s recently issued press release describes the goal of their educational outreach to be increasing science literacy across the board.
Such initiatives could include original classroom activities for teachers in public schools, presentations to the local or internet community and a new museum of microbes and medicine featuring interdisciplinary and interactive exhibits. SBSI also plans a division focused on service work for the public, companies, and other biomedical scientists. Services could include a variety of initiatives from micro-biome banking to scientific design consultation.
It’s an ambitious project. It’s also a vision of something York has never seen before: applied biomedical research to identify and treat diseases that may not make a lot of money for big drug companies but that can help promote the quality of life for thousands of patients with diseases that cause great misery.