New Test for Lyme Disease Developed

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 23, 1999 (Baltimore) -- A newly developed test for Lyme disease may help doctors detect the disease earlier and determine who will benefit from antibiotic therapy, according to a study in the Nov. 24 issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association.

Steven Schutzer, MD, of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the study's lead author, tells WebMD, "The diagnosis of Lyme disease has been a problem since the disease was first described. We have identified and used for diagnosis something called immune complexes, which are an indication of active disease."

Immune complexes form in the blood of people with Lyme disease because of the interaction between the organism that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, and proteins the body produces to combat it, called antibodies. In order for complexes to form, the organism must be present, Schutzer explains.

Schutzer and colleagues studied 168 patients with Lyme disease and 147 patients who did not have the disease. Blood was taken from all study participants and examined for the presence of the immune complexes and their composition.

The test was able to correctly identify people who had Lyme disease in over 95% of cases. No one who had had Lyme disease but had recovered got a positive result, and only two of the 147 patients who did not have Lyme disease were identified as positive. The test is also able to detect infection much sooner than traditional antibody tests currently in use.

"The detection of immune complexes is able to tell us about active and early infection, and therefore provides us with a basis for rationally prescribing antibiotic therapy or excluding it," Schutzer says. "It may also be useful to assess the efficacy [success] of antibiotic therapy, since none of the patients who had recovered from Lyme disease had a positive result."

Barry Handwerger, MD, associate professor of rheumatology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, gave objective comment on the study to WebMD. He says, "If additional testing proves its utility, this test would almost assuredly help patients avoid the long-term complications of infection [such as chronic arthritis and problems with the nervous system], as well as help us make early treatment decisions."

Vital Information:

  • The diagnosis of Lyme disease has been difficult in the past, but a new test for the condition correctly identifies over 95% of cases.
  • The test looks for immune complexes, which are formed when the organism that causes Lyme disease binds to antibodies.
  • The new test can detect infection much sooner than the traditional test and also works to determine whether a patient has recovered from the disease.
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