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Doctors Working On Possible Breakthrough Vaccine Against Disease-Carrying Ticks, Lyme Disease

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – There's some potentially exciting news about a way to actually prevent Lyme disease.

Lyme researchers have developed a way to create a possible vaccine for the disease.

CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reports it's not ready for prime time yet, but some of the top minds in immunology have been working on this project full-time.

They've figured out a 1-2-3 punch approach to preventing the tick-borne illness, which is good news for people, like Dr. Gomez himself, who became one of the 30,000 Lyme victims last year.

"Basically lost the whole second half of my twenties to Lyme disease," Jennifer Crystal said.

It took eight years of being run down with flu-like symptoms before Crystal was finally diagnosed with Lyme.

"Hard to get up a flight of stairs, I couldn't empty the dishwasher, I mean basic tasks."

Even after the official diagnosis and treatment, Jennifer relapsed.

"It would be wonderful for people to be able to be protected from Lyme."

That's exactly what's become the holy grail of Lyme disease – prevention. Like Jennifer, you can get Lyme more than once. Not everyone develops the tell-tale bull's eye rash and, worse yet, treatment isn't always effective.

"Even if you give antibiotics, not everyone will respond to the drugs and they won't knock out the bug," Dr. Steven Schutzer of Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School said.

A long-time Lyme immunologist, Dr. Schutzer told me those problems are what led to a high level conference at Long Island's Cold Spring Harbor labs that generated a strategy in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Schutzer, who's one of the authors, described an innovative strategy for developing a vaccine against Lyme. While it starts like most vaccines with an injection into an individual – who then develops antibodies to the Lyme bacterium – it actually works in both the human and the tick that carries the bug and transmits it to a victim with a bite.

"First it will K-O the bacterium inside the tick, further it will also stop the conveyor belt that gets the Lyme into you and finally, it will also block Lyme even once its inside the body," Dr. Schutzer explained.

Dr. Mark Klempner of the UMass Medical School may be on the brink of just such a treatment. It's called Lyme Prep and it's proving extremely effective at preventing the disease in animals.

"We think that this is a really safe approach. In mice it is incredibly effective, 100 percent effective,"

The Lyme Prep injection provides immediate protection but it's not a vaccine. Instead researchers have identified the specific antibody that kills the Lyme bacterium, so that even if you're bitten by an infected tick, you wouldn't get sick.

"We would intend to give this at the early part of the season Lyme disease season. The trick is to be able to make the antibody last long enough after a single injection that will cover the entire risk period of about six or seven months," Dr. Klempner explained.

Jennifer, once an avid skier, is now back on the slopes and feeling good but she's takes medication every day to keep the disease in remission.

"If this could be prevented that would be a miracle," Crystal said.

The next step is to produce a lot of the antibodies for human safety testing, which could start as early as next spring.

Large-scale manufacturing of monoclonal antibodies is costly, so even with the tremendous need for a Lyme preventive, Lyme Prep could be expensive.

Who should get such a vaccine?

Dr. Gomez reports that people living in high-Lyme prevalence areas such as the east end of Long Island are the top candidates.

Since you can get Lyme more than once, people who've gotten it before would be good candidates to prevent a second infection as well.

Numerous groups are working feverishly to produce the vaccine, but it will take a few years of testing before FDA approval – so keep wearing your bug spray.

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