A Very Old Thesis

I'm taking four weeks of Tropical Medicine here in Baltimore, and last week was "Vector-Borne Illnesses in the Tropics" or "Disease You Get From Bugs".  We had a lecture on Lyme Disease, which, as you know, is transmitted by ticks.  It's not a tropical disease, so I didn't think it should have been in the syllabus, but a rather odd thing happened during the lecture.

During the course, one of the "students", an Infectious Disease Doc from Mississippi, asked about STARI or Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness.  The expert (who was quite a good lecturer, actually) said that the problem with STARI is that only one person had every isolated a Lyme-like bacteria from that kind of tick, a species called Borrelia lonestari, and no one had every been able to replicate that isolation.  Thus, most people thought that those southern ticks (a species called the lone star tick) caused a rash, but did not transmit bacterial infection.

Well, that was where I got quite excited.

And, if you don't know the rest of the story, you may be incredulous that I could get excited at that precise point.

But others of you know that, over 10 years ago, for my Honors Thesis at Belmont University, I did my one bench science project.  It was titled "The Presence of Lyme-like Bacteria in Sumner County, Tennessee".  Basically, I had heard about this new bacterium (though I thought 2 or 3 people had isolated it, even then), and went out to a Boy Scout camp outside Nashville and collected hundreds of ticks.  The methodology of that I won't go into, but suffice to say that, yes, in the process, I had a lot of ticks on me as well.

I took them back and ran a series of molecular tests on them to look for Borrelia lonestari.  And it was there.  I wrote my thesis.  I presented it a couple times.  Someone at another university offered to continue the work and maybe publish an article, but at the time, I saw that as only vain ambition, and it wasn't interesting to me.  It never occurred to me to think that anyone would find that information helpful in trying to figure out if STARI actually existed as a legit disease.  I left the results in the freezer at Belmont, and the two copies of my thesis on a shelf there.  I don't even have a copy myself.

So, after the Lyme lecture this week, I went up to the lecturer and told him that, over 10 years ago, I had isolated Borrelia lonestari.  He said, "Wow, so you were the one person?"  I said, "No.  I never published it.  I must have been the second person (thus showing that it could be replicated, that it likely did exist)."  He said, "Really?  You did?"  "Uh, yeah."

So he gave me the name of a tick-borne illness specialist in New York, and recommend that I let him know about this.  I sent him an email, and we'll see what comes of it.  I let my adviser from Belmont know, and he assured me that he still has a copy of my thesis.  I can't imagine that they still have the specimen in the freezer.

Lesson:  You never know how various strings of your life are woven.

Lesson:  Try to find out if your information or idea might be useful to someone else before you discard it.


Uttz Family said...

Wow what are the odds that it would come up again. Who was the other one with that specific type? Tina?

samispeak said...

that's pretty incredible. physician, missionary, musician...ground-breaking scientist!

Anonymous said...

I think I'll stay away from Boxwell, the ticks now seem a little more ominous. Nana