Potential treatment for Lyme disease kills bacteria that may cause lingering symptoms

Summary: Mouse study reveals the antibiotic azlocillin completely kills off the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria at the onset of Lyme disease. Findings also suggest the drug could be effective for treating patients infected with drug-tolerant bacteria that may cause lingering symptoms.

Source: Stanford

For decades, the routine treatment for Lyme disease has been standard antibiotics, which usually kill off the infection. But for up to 20% of people with the tick-borne illness, the antibiotics don’t work, and lingering symptoms of muscle pain, fatigue and cognitive impairment can continue for years — sometimes indefinitely.

A new Stanford Medicine study in lab dishes and mice provides evidence that the drug azlocillin completely kills off the disease-causing bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi at the onset of the illness. The study suggests it could also be effective for treating patients infected with drug-tolerant bacteria that may cause lingering symptoms.

“This compound is just amazing,” said Jayakumar Rajadas, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and director of the Biomaterials and Advanced Drug Delivery Laboratory at the Stanford School of Medicine. “It clears the infection without a lot of side effects. We are hoping to repurpose it as an oral treatment for Lyme disease.” Rajadas is the senior author of the study, which was published online March 2 in Scientific Reports. The lead author is research associate Venkata Raveendra Pothineni, PhD.

“We have been screening potential drugs for six years,” Pothineni said. “We’ve screened almost 8,000 chemical compounds. We have tested 50 molecules in the dish. The most effective and safest molecules were tested in animal models. Along the way, I’ve met many people suffering with this horrible, lingering disease. Our main goal is to find the best compound for treating patients and stop this disease.”

Hunting for alternative drug

Frustrated by the lack of treatment options for Lyme disease patients with lingering symptoms, Rajadas and his team began hunting for a better alternative in 2011. In 2016, they published a study in Drug Design, Development and Therapy that listed 20 chemical compounds, from about 4,000, that were most effective at killing the infection in mice. All 20 had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for various uses. One, for instance, is used to treat alcohol abuse disorder.

In this most recent study, azlocillin, one of the top-20 contenders, was shown to eclipse a total of 7,450 compounds because it is more effective in killing B. burgdorferi and causes fewer side effects. Lyme disease affects more than 300,000 people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can affect various organs, including the brain, skin, heart, joints and nervous system, and cause heart problems and arthritis if untreated. Symptoms include fever, headaches, chills, and muscle and joint pain.

Traditional antibiotics, such as doxycycline, are effective as an early course of treatment for the infection in the majority of patients, but it remains unclear why these drugs fail to treat 10% to 20% of patients, Rajadas said.

This shows a deer tick
Deer ticks are vectors of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. The image is credited to Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Research Service.

“Some researchers think this may be due to drug-tolerant bacteria living in the body and continuing to cause disease,” said Rajadas, who is also a member of the Lyme Disease Working Group at Stanford. “Others believe it’s an immune disorder caused by bacteria during the first exposure, which causes a perpetual inflammation condition. Whatever the cause, the pain for patients is still very real.”

Azlocillin comes out on top

The drug, which is not on the market, was tested in mouse models of Lyme disease at seven-day, 14-day and 21-day intervals and found to eliminate the infection. For the first time, azlocillin was also shown to be effective in killing drug-tolerant forms of B. burgdorferi in lab dishes, indicating that it may work as a therapy for lingering symptoms of Lyme disease.

Pothineni and Rajadas have patented the compound for the treatment of Lyme disease and are working with a company to develop an oral form of the drug. Researchers plan to conduct a clinical trial.

Rajadas is also a professor of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences at the University of California-San Francisco.

Other Stanford co-authors are Hari-Hara S. K. Potula, PhD, senior research scientist; postdoctoral scholars Aditya Ambati, PhD, and Venkata Mallajosyula, PhD; senior research scientist Mohammed Inayathullah, PhD; and intern Mohamed Sohail Ahmed.

A researcher at Loyola College in India also contributed to the work.

Funding: The study was funded by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation and Laurel STEM Fund.

About this neuroscience research article

Media Contacts:
Tracie White – Stanford
Image Source:
The image is credited to Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Research Service

Original Research: Open access
“Azlocillin can be the potential drug candidate against drug-tolerant Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto JLB31”. Venkata Raveendra Pothineni, Hari-Hara S. K. Potula, Aditya Ambati, Venkata Vamsee Aditya Mallajosyula, Brindha Sridharan, Mohammed Inayathullah, Mohamed Sohail Ahmed & Jayakumar Rajadasr.
Scientific Reports doi:10.1038/s41598-020-59600-4.


Azlocillin can be the potential drug candidate against drug-tolerant Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto JLB31

Lyme disease is one of most common vector-borne diseases, reporting more than 300,000 cases annually in the United States. Treating Lyme disease during its initial stages with traditional tetracycline antibiotics is effective. However, 10–20% of patients treated with antibiotic therapy still shows prolonged symptoms of fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, and perceived cognitive impairment. When these symptoms persists for more than 6 months to years after completing conventional antibiotics treatment are called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). Though the exact reason for the prolongation of post treatment symptoms are not known, the growing evidence from recent studies suggests it might be due to the existence of drug-tolerant persisters. In order to identify effective drug molecules that kill drug-tolerant borrelia we have tested two antibiotics, azlocillin and cefotaxime that were identified by us earlier. The in vitro efficacy studies of azlocillin and cefotaxime on drug-tolerant persisters were done by semisolid plating method. The results obtained were compared with one of the currently prescribed antibiotic doxycycline. We found that azlocillin completely kills late log phase and 7–10 days old stationary phase B. burgdorferi. Our results also demonstrate that azlocillin and cefotaxime can effectively kill in vitro doxycycline-tolerant B. burgdorferi. Moreover, the combination drug treatment of azlocillin and cefotaxime effectively killed doxycycline-tolerant B. burgdorferi. Furthermore, when tested in vivo, azlocillin has shown good efficacy against B. burgdorferi in mice model. These seminal findings strongly suggests that azlocillin can be effective in treating B. burgdorferi sensu stricto JLB31 infection and furthermore in depth research is necessary to evaluate its potential use for Lyme disease therapy.

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