With more ticks and tick bites occurring in Canada year after year, better diagnosis of Lyme disease is the goal of renewed funding from the G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-Borne Diseases supporting a dedicated research program at the University of Guelph.

The G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab will receive a three-year, $1.2-million grant from the foundation to continue studying the bacterial pathogen and the disease it causes.

One long-range objective is to improve diagnosis of the disease, which is notoriously difficult to detect, said Dr. Melanie Wills, director of the lab in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), part of the College of Biological Science.

The new funding, announced May 2, follows the foundation’s initial investment of $1.4 million in 2017 to establish the lab at U of G.

A better solution to diagnostics and treatment

Beyond studying diagnostics, members of the lab aim to help improve disease treatment and prognosis for people infected with Lyme disease.

Melanie Wills, director of the G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab at U of G

Working across the spectrum from fundamental research to clinical application, Wills said, “Our end goal is to improve patient outcomes.”

“Since our landmark partnership and first grant in 2017, it is remarkable what this team of brilliant scientists has achieved at the G. Magnotta Lyme Research Lab,” said Rossana Magnotta, the foundation’s president and founder.

Referring to the team’s research intended to understand Lyme-causing bacteria, she said, “The information they have uncovered and the research studies by Dr. Wills that have been published have earned the lab well-deserved national and international attention.

“I am proud that this team is not afraid to challenge the status quo and be relentless about it because they are looking for a better solution to diagnostics and treatment of this disease that Canadians have been denied. Our second grant will certainly bring a new wave of knowledge as we head into real clinical studies.”

Added U of G president Dr. Charlotte Yates, “This is an excellent example of how University of Guelph research in partnership with the G. Magnotta Foundation will help improve the health of people here in Canada and abroad. I’m delighted that the foundation will renew funding for research intended to improve diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease.”

Researchers aim to understand response to therapies

Closeup of Dr. Melanie Wills looking through a microscope
Dr. Melanie Wills in the G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab

Wills and her team are pursuing various projects, including mapping “proteomics” of the disease-causing bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi.  

Researchers have subjected the bacteria to drugs to see how those therapies change microbial proteins, which are key to survival of the pathogen and the immune response in infected people. Wills said this work, involving numerous proteins in biochemical pathways, may help in figuring out how Borrelia evades certain therapies.

The lab will use this approach to ask other questions about fundamental microbial processes, and their impact on the body, she said.

For instance, a major limitation of the current laboratory test is its reliance on the patient’s immune response. To get around that, the lab is searching for direct signatures of infection.

Techniques like proteomics may help the researchers learn more about individuals’ differing responses to drug treatment and why the disease goes undiagnosed in some infected people. Some people fail to develop antibodies for Lyme disease, said Wills, whose own case went undiagnosed for about 20 years.

If tests fail to detect the pathogen directly, doctors may not immediately diagnose the infection.

The lab maintains a biobank of blood and other fluids from more than 150 people. The material is used to identify biomarkers for Lyme disease. In a new study this spring, she aims to obtain more tissues from people bitten by ticks to build the bank and to further analyze the bacterium.

Wills and her team are interested in learning more about where in the body to look for Borrelia, such as platelets in the blood.

Ultimately, these studies would improve diagnostic tools for the disease, including point-of-care biosensor devices for a doctor’s office or clinic or hospital.  Wills envisions instruments able to quickly and accurately test for Lyme disease after a tick bite. Current tests can sometimes take weeks to deliver results.

“A point-of-care device would minimize time and cost and labour involved,” she said.

Along with MCB professor Dr. Cezar Khursigara, she is also investigating the formation of bacterial clumps called biofilms that help the pathogen evade detection and treatment.

“We want to fill in a lot of blanks with this disease,” said Wills. “We hope for better ways for detecting and treating it.”

Researcher brings personal Lyme experience to lab

Alongside the full-time researchers and grad and undergrad students in their joint lab, the team includes Justin Wood, a part-time staff scientist who also runs Geneticks, a tick-testing company based near Newmarket, Ont.  The company tests samples submitted by people for a range of tick-borne pathogens, including Borrelia.

Wood said the company’s work with ticks complements the human diagnostic and treatment research conducted in the U of G lab.  He said they find Borrelia in almost one-quarter of ticks found in Ontario and tested by his company. In parts of the province, including northeastern Ontario, the bug occurs in as many as 60 per cent of sample ticks.

Wood spent four years dealing with joint and neurological issues before he was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

“We just want to stop people from getting Lyme disease,” he said. “If people are bitten by a tick, we want to do our best to give them all the tools to prevent getting sick and to get the right treatment early. We know thousands of Canadians are suffering from Lyme disease.”

Based in Vaughan, Ont., the G. Magnotta Foundation is Canada’s only non-profit organization focused on learning more about Lyme disease through scientific investigation.


Dr. Melanie Wills