Lyme disease occurs when the borrelia bacteria is transmitted from an infected tick. The first signs of infection are similar to that of a flu, and people are often unaware that they have Lyme disease at all. When they do get treated with antibiotics, it has long been thought that the Lyme-causing bacteria could evade detection and continue to cause health problems because of its ability to hide out in tissues. Researchers believe that when this happens, it leads to the host of symptoms and a condition known as post-Lyme disease syndrome.
Post-Lyme disease syndrome can lead to various health effects such as fatigue, restless sleep, aching joints or muscles, cognitive issues (such as speech problems or decreased short-term memory), and swelling in the knees, shoulders, and other large joints. When the borrelia bacteria stays in the body long enough to cause post-Lyme disease syndrome, it can also lead to inflammation that can cause permanent damage if it is left untreated.
Lyme disease has puzzled researchers for years, but new findings may have uncovered a link between a specific protein known as the NapA protein and its role in Lyme-induced inflammation and arthritis. Read on to learn all you need to know about this connection.
How does Lyme disease cause inflammation?
Inflammation can work in the body in both good and bad ways. Technically speaking, inflammation is a sign that the immune system is doing its job. This is because when a pathogen enters the body, certain signals are sent to the immune system to drive up the inflammatory response so that chemicals released from white blood cells can enter the bloodstream and tissues in an effort to protect the body. When this happens, blood flow to the affected area increases, causing inflammation and swelling.
In the case of Lyme disease, the immune system is alerted to the borrelia bacteria and the damage it is causing, and attempts to protect the body by becoming inflamed in the threatened areas. When the inflammation caused by the Lyme disease infection becomes chronic or long-lasting, it can lead to worsened symptoms of the disease such as nervous system dysfunction and Lyme disease-induced arthritis.
What is the NapA protein?
The NapA protein, or the neutrophil-attracting protein A, is a molecule within bacteria that plays a heavy role in its survival. In terms of the borrelia bacteria, the molecule recruits neutrophils (white blood cells) in a way that tricks the immune system. The NapA protein works alongside peptidoglycans, which are inflammatory substances on the cell walls of bacteria. When the two get together, they can wreak effectively trick the body into sending white bloods cells to a certain area while viable bacteria “escapes out the back door”, so to speak.
The connection between the NapA protein and Lyme disease
The NapA protein and Lyme disease connection was discovered when researchers at Virginia Tech were trying to figure out exactly how borrelia bacteria could lead to inflammatory conditions such as arthritis long after antibiotic treatment had occurred. When they came across the NapA protein and its protection of the inflammatory substance of the bacteria, they realized it may just be the missing piece they’d been looking for all along.
The NapA protein works in two ways when it comes to Lyme disease. The first occurs early on in the infection, when the bacteria begins to die. When that happens, the NapA protein and peptidoglycan are released. As mentioned above, the NapA protein then attracts immune cells that are meant to go after the borrelia bacteria. Acting as a decoy of sorts, the borrelia bacteria that is still alive and can cause illness can get away undetected because of the way the NapA protein confuses the immune system.
When a person has been infected with Lyme disease for a while, the NapA protein works in a different way to further the progression of the damage the bacteria causes. It does this by attracting immune cells to peptidoglycan, which results in inflammation and eventually the development of Lyme arthritis.
What does this discovery mean for patients with Lyme arthritis?
Although the discovery is relatively new, it does give researchers a helping hand when it comes to preventing and diagnosing Lyme disease by acting as a target of sorts. The researchers of the abovementioned paper go so far as to say that, theoretically speaking, knowing how the NapA protein and peptidoglycans work for the borrelia bacteria could give them a path towards developing a vaccine against Lyme disease.
With this breakthrough, people with or at risk of Lyme disease may be able to breathe a little easier, knowing that medical professionals are on the hunt for a viable and effective way to prevent the disease’s harmful effects.
Featured image by Erik Karits on Unsplash