Most people know that Lyme disease is spread through ticks, but knowing if a particular tick is infected with Lyme bacteria is another story entirely. According to BCA-clinic, a Lyme disease specialist site operating in Germany, it’s estimated that many, many ticks carry the offending borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, though of course it’s almost impossible to put a precise number on it. In addition, not every tick bite will result in Lyme contagion, even if the tick itself carries the bacteria. This recurring issue is part of what makes Lyme disease so tricky to diagnose and quantify. Tick bites are not a rare occurrence, especially if you live in rural areas; but how can you tell if the tick that bit you is a Lyme disease carrier or benign? One way of checking is by sending the sample to BCA-lab.
When it comes to Lyme disease, acting quickly is key. The disease can be successfully treated with minimal fuss in its acute stage, which lasts for a few weeks after the initial infection. After that, it progresses to the chronic stage, where things get a whole lot more complicated. So it’s in the best interests of patients and doctors alike to identify and start treating Lyme as soon as possible. Confirming that you’ve suffered a tick bite is a great first step, and gives you the opportunity to get ahead of the curve. Sending the tick itself away to be tested provides a definitive answer to whether you’re at risk of contracting Lyme. But what actually happens to the tick when BCA-lab receives it?
Ticks are directed to BCA-lab’s veterinary partner, Infectolab Vet, in Augsburg. Clients can select from a variety of tests, packages and options, depending on what exactly they want to test for. Ticks can be sent to Infectolab vet via regular mail, without any worry of degrading the specimen. They can be either dead or alive; if the latter, make sure to seal the insect up well! Upon receiving the tick, the lab stores the specimen at 4 degrees Celsius until the testing procedure is ready to begin. This ensures that the specimen remains immobile, if indeed it is still alive. Documentation papers are prepared, and each tick is labelled with a unique identification code.
The actual process of testing the tick for Lyme disease and its co-infections can then begin. The main thrust of the procedure is extracting both the DNA and ribonucleic acid (RNA) from the tick. These are the elements that will be used to decipher what exactly it’s carrying in its system. This is a delicate process, and to make sure that the DNA/RNA was extracted successfully (and also to make sure that the insect is indeed a tick), the lab will perform a control polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This method is widely used in molecular biology to create copies of specific sequences of DNA. Using the PCR technique, thousands upon thousands of copies can be created, and used as a diagnostic tool. This process has many different beneficial applications, and is put to use across many scientific and medical procedures.
In this case, the PCR is designed to conclusively confirm that the insect is a tick, and that the DNA was safely extracted. Once this is done, the next step is to confirm the presence of the particular pathogen DNA within the sample. Exactly which pathogens are tested for depends on the test package ordered. This is done via PCR again, where each PCR is designed to specifically identify a region in the genome that is unique to each pathogen. In essence, different PCRs are set up to test for specific diseases. If there is a positive result, it can be concluded that the pathogen DNA has been found in the tick DNA, and consequently the tick in question is a carrier of that particular pathogen.
To ensure the test is valid and correct, positive controls are also run by the lab to demonstrate that all PCRs are functioning as expected. Negative controls are also run simultaneously to ensure that there is no contamination in the samples. All results are then verified by laboratory personnel (known as technical validation), and then reviewed for plausibility by an in-house veterinarian (known as final validation). These validated results are then sent directly to the client, or to the physician who ordered them.
While this may seem like a lot of work in an effort to diagnose a single tick bite, it can be absolutely crucial in preventing Lyme disease from spreading any further in the body. If the opportunity to treat Lyme disease in its acute stage is missed, a lifetime of complications can ensue. Co-infections can also be transferred through tick bites; these diseases can compound, extend or amplify the effects of Lyme, and must be eradicated at the same time to facilitate completely successful treatment. If you notice you’ve been bitten by a tick and are in any doubt at all, getting the specimen tested can be an important first step.