Looking into the lingering horrors of Lyme disease
Deep inside a lab in Steger Hall lingers a relic to 1990s horror movies.
“It’s terrible,” Brandon Jutras said of his lab’s poster from the 1993 films “Ticks.” “It’s one of those where it’s so bad it’s good.”
An associate professor of biochemistry, Jutras and the Jutras Lab have been working to mitigate the real-life horrors of the arthropods known for clinging to humans and transmitting disease for almost five years. They were recently awarded a National Institutes of Health R01 grant of more than $2 million to investigate why symptoms of Lyme disease linger long after the initial infection in some people.
“Basically, many, but not all, Lyme arthritis patients have massively swollen knees, generally only on one side, that will be debilitating and last for weeks or months, even when we can no longer detect an active infection,” Jutras said.
Jutras believes a key to finding answers lies in the unique molecule, peptidoglycan, which he discovered is shed inside the infected by the Lyme disease-causing bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, in 2019. The unique nature of the molecule has allowed Jutras and his lab to detect it inside patients’ joints weeks and months after their initial treatments.
“Peptidoglycan is known the be inflammatory,” Jutras said. “Inflammation is good in some situations, like wound repair, but perpetual inflammation can cause damage and lead to many disorders. It looks like this molecule is driving perpetual inflammation because for whatever reason, it continues to persist. The reason(s) for persistence are one of the foci of this new grant”
While pinpointing the reason for this occurrence remains a work in progress, the discovery of the lingering pest in joints is an important milestone in the field of Lyme research.
“I think that the work he has done showing the persistence of peptidoglycan for prolonged periods after antibiotic therapy is likely to be the most clinically impactful research that has come out in the field in the last decade,” said Linden Hu, professor of immunology at Tufts University’s School of Medicine.
May is recognized annually as National Lyme Disease Awareness month, according to the advocacy group, LymeDisease.org.
Jutras originally came to the United States from Canada to play golf at Eastern Illinois University after injuries side-tracked a promising young hockey career. During his undergraduate journey, however, he came to realize his future was in investigating the pests that often live in the tall grass, rather than trying to avoid it.
“I was solid, but there are a lot of good golfers out there and I didn’t think it was a viable career option,” Jutras said. “I started studying spiders because I was interested in spider silk production — it has incredible strength to weight ratios — and then I realized what was happening on the inside of organisms was what I am really interested in.”
Ticks’ abilities to transmit bacteria eventually won him over and his desire to better understand how Lyme disease works, inside both them and humans, and led him to shift his focus from entomology to microbiology.
“Then I just stuck with Lyme disease because it’s such a weird and fascinating microorganism,” said Jutras, an affiliated faculty member of Virginia Tech’s Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens, housed within the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “At first, I wanted to go the medical school route, but I just became way more interested in the research. And hopefully I can help millions of people this way, instead of just one at a time.”
After his undergraduate degree, Jutras headed to the University of Kentucky, where he earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics, then to a Howard Hughes Medical Institute postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University. During that span, he met Hu, who said Jutras was an impressive researcher from their earliest encounters.
“He was quite memorable even back then,” Hu said. “He had no fear and was always willing to ask tough questions, both of his own work and of others.”
Jutras came to Blacksburg in April 2018 as an assistant professor in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In 2021, he received an Emerging Leader Award from the Bay Area Lyme Foundation, the leading not-for-profit sponsor of Lyme disease research in the United States and a partner of the American Junior Golf Association, a tour on which Jutras used to play.
Today, the Jutras Lab is made up of 12 people, including eight graduate students, two undergraduate students, and two staff. Along with investigating the prolonged effects of Lyme disease, the lab is also working on creating a rapid test for the disease, which was just recently funded by a $1.2 million Department of Defense grant.
Jutras credits the lab’s success obtaining grants, achieving breakthroughs, and publishing research to the team’s camaraderie. And he said his favorite part is helping the younger researchers experience their own breakthroughs.
“Research is 90 percent troubleshooting, but those instances when it works and you know something that nobody else does, you get the feeling that this may change everything. Those moments are what make this career fantastic,” Jutras said. “We’ve had a few of those so far and it’s all because of the outstanding junior scientist in the lab. They’re working their tails off.”
One of those graduate students is Mecaila McClune, who is working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Jutras credits McClune with playing a key role in the lab’s work to better understand how peptidoglycan moves through organisms by developing a fluorescent tracer system that could highlight the molecule as it moves in mice.
“I couldn’t believe it worked,” Jutras said. “Mecaila is an exceptional scientist and a gifted problem solver. Her work has allowed us to track peptidoglycan in real time. This breakthrough gives us a system to understand peptidoglycan persistence, which could lead to new ways to treat patients.”
McClune said having the opportunity to work on a project with such real-life implications has helped her build resiliency as a researcher.
“With any project you’re going to have setbacks. Some aspects need to be optimized at the beginning and others you have to figure out as you go,” McClune said. “Knowing how directly my work could impact human health makes it that much more motivating to overcome setbacks.”
She said being able to work with Jutras had not only made her a more well-rounded researcher, but also showed her the importance of taking joy in your work.
“He’s very passionate about the research being done in our lab. His excitement is contagious and helps the lab stay focused on the bigger picture of our work. It’s a special experience when others are just as excited as you about the work that you’re doing,” McClune said. “It’s good to remember the importance of having passion for your work.”
While the National Institutes of Health grant, which is administered through its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is focused on Lyme, Hu believes the Jutras Lab’s work could also help mitigate all kinds of other bacteria-related horrors.
“He took advantage of something unique about B. burgdorferi to show that these components can persist, but if it also occurs for other bacteria, where it is more difficult to trace, it may help explain some of the long-term symptoms we see in patients after other infections,” Hu said. “It really helps us to understand why it might be possible that people continue to have symptoms of inflammation after the bacteria has been treated.”
As a person who enjoys the outdoors and the owner of two dogs – a black lab mix, Fiona, and a golden retriever, Fred - Jutras is no stranger to ticks outside of work hours.
“Since moving to Southwest Virginia, I’ve pulled ticks off of them every month of the year,” Jutras said.
In the region, blacklegged ticks, commonly called deer ticks, are the only ones able to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, and they can only do so as nymphs or as adults. Nymphs are about the size of a pencil tip.
Unlike mosquitoes, some ticks don’t seek hosts as much as they simply sense carbon dioxide expelled by other organisms during breathing. They then crawl to the highest possible point, reach out their Velcro-like arms, and hopefully cling on. They also secret antihistamines, along with a glue-like material called cementin, when they latch onto a person or animal, Jutras said.
“So your body cannot sense it’s being pierced, you don’t feel them at all, and they’re extremely hard to remove. Together, those features create a big problem,” Jutras said. “They’re little beasts.”
Jutras suggested a handful of tips to avoid the horrors of these beasts:
Check often and always
“The prompt removal is the most important thing,” Jutras said. “Once the tick bites, it can take anywhere from 12 to 72 hours to transmit the Lyme disease-causing bacterium. They like to hang out in inconspicuous areas. They like warm and moist environment, so you can imagine where those might be. If you’re outside in a high-risk area, such as anywhere with high grass, a wooded property, golf course, etc., a good way to check is to have a good shower afterward.”
“Wear light-colored clothing while enjoying the outdoors and treat these clothes with DEET, or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, containing bug spray. This does work well at repelling ticks, and light-colored clothing will allow you to spot the ticks more easily. When in high-risk areas check yourself often, initial tick contact almost always occurs below your thigh.”
Protect your pets
“Our furry friends are wonderful companions, but they are tick magnets. Commercial tick treatments do not prevent attachment, and will usually kill the ticks if they do start feeding, but they do not prevent contact. What happens? Often the ticks are brought inside from the outdoors by our pets and they are then able to bite us. So, check your pets often. It is not only good practice because the commercial treatments work well, but are not 100 percent effective, and it can help you and your family stay safe. Another important mitigation strategy is vaccination; the Lyme disease vaccine works well for companion animals”
Don’t skip the dryer
“Spring and summer weather encourages many people to hang their clothes to dry. However, ticks survive the washer and can remain on clean clothes. They do not, however, survive the dryer. If you have returned from a high-risk activity, like hiking or camping, be sure to use the dryer on all articles of clothing.”