Brissette awarded $387,750 grant through the NIH’s Allergy and Infectious Disease Institute

Dr. Catherine Brissette, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, was recently awarded a $387,750 R21 grant through the National Institutes of Health’s Allergy and Infectious Disease Institute. The scientific review panel characterized Dr. Brissette’s proposal as trail-blazing, and praised the level of innovation as well as the excellent research environment at UND.

A recently identified human pathogen, Borrelia miyamotoi, causes an acute febrile illness, and may have serious neurological complications in immunocompromised patients. This bacterium was discovered in Japan in 1995, but the first documented human cases were not reported until 2011 in Russia. The first case in the U.S. was reported in 2013. Infection may require hospitalization, with symptoms that include high fever, joint and muscle pain, inflammation of the brain, and decreased white blood cells and platelets.

In her project, Dr. Brissette’s laboratory will determine when and how Borrelia miyamotoi causes meningitis (Inflammation of protective membranes covering the brain) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and the immune responses responsible for controlling the infection.

Borrelia miyamotoi is spread by Ixodes ticks (black-legged or deer tick), which are found throughout the U.S., particularly in the Northeast and Midwest regions. These same ticks, whose range is expanding, transmit the Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. There have been recent case reports of severe neurological Borrelia miyamotoi disease (BMD). These patients were being treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with a standard regimen including the drug Rituximab, which targets immune cells called B cells. In humans, a 4-week dose depletes B cells for 6-12 months and results in decreased immune responses. 45,000 patients in the United States take rituximab for lymphoma, and many more patients with autoimmune diseases such as inflammatory bowel and rheumatoid arthritis take this drug. Dr. Brissette hypothesizes that B cell responses are critical to preventing severe neurological complications with BMD.

Borrelia miyamotoi disease (BMD) is likely underrecognized and underreported. The expansion of the Ixodes tick vector increases the likelihood of human exposure to tick-borne disease, including B. miyamotoi. Given that much of the northern hemisphere has a large population of immunosuppressed individuals (due to age, chemotherapy, and treatment for autoimmune conditions), severe disease to Borrelia miyamotoi is an emerging public health threat. A greater understanding of severe BMD will enable healthcare providers to target at-risk patients with information about alternative treatments for their conditions and preventative strategies to avoid BMD and other tick-borne diseases.

The grant runs through Dec. 2021.