Mucous-like Biofilms May Be Protecting Lyme Bacteria And Causing Diagnostic Nightmares
Could a slimy biofilm be halting proper Lyme diagnosis and treatment? Imagine your teeth covered with a green goo so thick it’s impossible to clean off. Or trying to wash your dishes despite a greasy film that soap can’t penetrate. In a breakthrough discovery, researchers now believe something like this may be why those afflicted with Lyme have such a hard time healing. The CDC estimates there are 300,000 people in the U.S. diagnosed with Lyme disease annually. (Those in the Lyme community say that there are a lot more sufferers than that).
In the human body, this protective coating is called a biofilm, a group of microorganisms whose cells stick or adhere to each other on a surface, a ball of slime that can protect a parasitic infection at the core. In the case of Lyme disease, slimy, mucous-like biofilms protect the spirochete, a corkscrew-shaped bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi that is transmitted through ticks that causes Lyme disease and torment its victims with a bevy of enigmatic symptoms including fatigue, joint pain, sleep deprivation, fevers, sweats, chills, depression, headaches, neuropathic, and heart-related issues.
The Lyme biofilm is especially troublesome. A new study at the University of New Haven suggests that Borrelia spirochetes generate a particularly virulent biofilm over several weeks, months, or even years that makes the bacteria up to 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics than other types of bacteria.
Citing new research from the Moriarity Lab at the University of Toronto, microbiology professor Holly Ahern says it appears as though the Borrelia bacteria enters the blood, crawls along blood vessels, finds a place to breach and then exits the bloodstream. The bacteria then binds to collagen rich (gelatinous) tissues that predominate in the nervous system linings, the heart linings, and the joints.
“Once established in these locations, the bacteria switches from being motile(moving) to stationary cells that build a biofilm,” says Ahern. “Once the biofilm is established it is extremely hard to kill the bacteria within — not only because there are many bacteria in thick layers but because a proportion of the cells are genetically hardwired to shut down metabolism and exist as dormant persister cells, which are ‘tolerant’ to antibiotics.”
Ahern says tolerance is different than resistance, as the persister cells are simply unaffected by the antibiotics without doing anything to “resist” the actions of these drugs.
Personal Encounter Drives Research
Ahern has more than just a scientific interest in the puzzling nature of Lyme disease. In 2012, her young daughter Kaleigh was bitten by a tick. While no serious symptoms developed immediately, Kaleigh did at times feel mentally hazy and just not quite right physically. Still she made it through high school and even became a champion swimmer in college. Then it hit her. Hard. She was 18 years old.
“I literally watched her go from being an All-American one day to crumbling into a progressive debilitating illness the next,” says Ahern.
Ahern’s dedication to help her daughter led her on a wellness journey that includes establishing a New York-based advocacy organization Lyme Action Network and becoming a science adviser at Project Lyme, a national organization dedicated to education and awareness of tick-borne diseases.
Food For Thought: Do Antibiotics Feed The Disease?
One of the disturbing discoveries Ahern and other researchers have made is that antibiotics may actually be making the Borrelia biofilm stronger. The conventional treatment for treating Lyme is with antibiotics Doxycycline or Amoxicillin for a few weeks orally or in more severe cases, intravenously. If Lyme is caught early enough, this has been an effective treatment.
“But the prevailing idea that three to four weeks of antibiotics will eliminate the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria may not be true in many cases,” says Dr. Adam Breiner, the medical director of The NeuroEdge Brain Performance Center. “For these patients, the bacterium has evaded the antimicrobial therapies and has caused immune and inflammatory changes in various tissues and organs, leading to chronic symptoms.”
A biofilm is a protective mechanism that cells turn on when they sense they’re under stress, so there’s significantly more biofilm formation when cells are treated with antimicrobial agents including antibiotics. Numerous studies have shown this for nearly all antibiotics. For example, researchers from the University of Southern California and the Oak Crest Institute of Science have discovered a link between antibiotics and bacterial biofilm formation leading to chronic lung, sinus, and ear infections. This study illustrates how bacterial biofilms can actually thrive, rather than decrease, when treated with antibiotics.
“Once the biofilm forms, it becomes stronger with each treatment of antibiotics,” says Paul Webster, senior staff scientist at USC.
And there’s another thing. It appears as though if the initial round of antibiotics do not kill the Lyme bacteria, the biofilms can spread along with the Borrelia spirochetes they are protecting. It’s as though the presence of antibiotics signals additional danger to the bacteria, which wait until the coast is clear (a break in the antibiotics) then revert back to their non-stationary form to establish new biofilms and colonize new tissues. Since antibiotics can’t be continuously given to a patient, there really isn’t anything to stop these bacteria cells from spreading the disease.
Biofilm Plays Havoc With Testing?
A false negative is a test result that indicates a person does not have a disease or condition when the person actually does have it. This is a problem with Lyme disease. Because of misdiagnosis, patients with Lyme disease are frequently misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia, ALS, CFS, multiple sclerosis, and different psychiatric diseases. Biofilms may contribute to this issue also. A biofilm is capable of protecting Borrelia from the immune system, the human body’s antibody generator. The Western Blot and Elisa Test use antibodies as an indication for Lyme Disease. If no antibodies are created, tests will yield negative results despite patients having full blown Lyme disease.
“There are many reasons for the high rate of false negative blood tests, and the fact that the bacteria are living in biofilms outside of the blood and protected from immune system cells is one of them,” says Ahern.
Ahern points out that microbiologist and immunologist Dr. Nicole Baumgarth has shown that Borrelia can also invade the lymph nodes and rearrange “germinal centers” where critical immune cell indoctrination occurs, contributing to misdiagnosis. Noted Lyme disease researcher Dr. Eva Sapi of the University of New Haven has also published visible evidence of Borrelia biofilms in human lymphocytomas (infected skin tissues), which could also throw off a Lyme diagnosis.
Metabolomics’ Cut To The Chase
After three rounds of standard antibiotic therapy in which the symptoms lessened and then came roaring back, Ahern took her daughter Kaleigh to an alternative medicine physician a colleague recommended.
“We started treating her with pulsed electric fields from a rife machine,” says Ahern. “After 10 months or so, the major symptoms resolved, meaning she could stay awake, walk, see, think, and feel again.”
However, Kaleigh still had Lyme-related issues such as residual pain, headaches, occasional numbness and tingling. These mostly disappeared after Ahern switched her daughter to an anti-inflammatory diet with other supplements.
“In my opinion, the diet and supplements helped repair the damage the antibiotics did to her microbiome,” Ahern says.
Today Kaleigh still experiences some symptoms but is able to control them with the help of a naturopathic doctor who assists in keeping the chronic inflammation under control.
“Kaleigh is working to become a nurse practitioner because she wants something good to come from what she went through, and she wants to help other people with Lyme and other chronic diseases.”