SARANAC LAKE - The Adirondacks are expected to be New York's next battleground in the fight against Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.
To gain a better understanding of how the disease will impact the Park, researchers from Trudeau Institute are teaming up with the state Department of Health, Paul Smith's College and Adirondack Health on a tick monitoring project that will take place in several locations across the region this summer and fall.
Those involved with the pilot project say it could be the first step toward making the Adirondacks, specifically Trudeau Institute, a center for research into one of the fastest-growing infectious diseases in the country.
"I think what we need is the infectious disease equivalent of the Manhattan Project," said Tim Sellati, a Trudeau research scientist who specializes in tick-borne diseases.
Caused by bacteria transmitted by deer ticks, Lyme disease can affect the skin, nervous system, heart and joints of an infected person. Nearly 100,000 cases have been reported to the state since it first started tracking the disease in 1986.
Despite its impact on New York and other Northeast states, there is no center for studying Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.
"There is no research infrastructure to bring together research scientists, physicians, public health scientists, epidemiologists to try and tackle this issue," Sellati said.
Sellati wants to change that. He wants to forge a "cross-institutional, cross-disciplinary, perhaps even a cross-state effort" that would develop vaccines against tick-borne diseases, make them easier to diagnose and develop outreach programs for physicians and the public about the risks of contracting them.
"The way I envision this would be to have a center here at the Trudeau Institute that reaches out to the state Department of Health, the local hospital infrastructure, Paul Smith's College and whoever else can help us tackle this issue," Sellati said. "It's too serious a problem for one individual, one person's perspective or one person's skill set to try and significantly impact public health."
Long thought of as a safe haven against Lyme and other tick-borne diseases because of its colder climate, the Adirondack Park is now at the cusp of the disease's spread out of the Hudson Valley region.
"As the pathogen and the ticks advance northward and westward in New York state, you have this leading edge where you see human case numbers really start to take off," said Melissa Prusinski, a research scientist and laboratory supervisor with the state Health Department's Bureau of Communicable Disease Control. "Now, we're talking about the southern Adirondacks, Saratoga, Washington and Warren counties, and heading west into even Central New York. That's where we're seeing the increases now."
What's driving this spread? Prusinski said climate change is playing a role in the expansion of the deer tick's geographic range, as well as that of the small mammals like the white-footed mouse that carry the Lyme disease bacteria. She said there's also an increasing awareness of the disease among doctors, who are now more likely to report suspected cases.
Sellati said this makes the Park the perfect location to study these diseases. He said he wants to test the hypothesis that the bacteria at the leading edge of disease is often more virulent compared to the same bacteria in areas where these disease has already been established.
"That should potentially be reflected in a more severe course of Lyme disease in individuals that are bitten and infected here, in Franklin County and Essex County versus Columbia County or Dutchess County," he said. "We have the ability to develop a baseline or foundational understanding of the incidence of ticks and (the bacteria that causes Lyme disease) in the area here, and compare it to a massive database of information the state Department of Health has further south."
Sellati also wants to find ways to vaccinate people against multiple tick-borne diseases all at once.
"You'd theoretically have to spend tens of years, decades, and tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars developing a vaccine to protect individuals against each of these pathogens," he said. "My idea is to target the tick itself. If we could vaccinate an individual so that their immune system would target proteins in the salivary glands of the tick, if you could plug up the tick's feeding parts, you could protect an individual against any pathogen that tick might be carrying."
On Thursday, students from Paul Smith's College and Middlebury College took part in an orientation session on the grounds of Trudeau Institute on how to collect ticks in the field. Starting in June, many of the same students will fan out around the Park to collect the insects so they can be tested for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
"Flagging and dragging surveys are the standard method for collecting large numbers of host-seeking tick," Prusinski said. "We go out at key times of the year, June and July for the immature ticks and October and November for the adult ticks. We take a 1-meter-by-1-meter square of cloth, and we drag it along the forest floor and periodically check it for ticks, and remove the ticks found on the cloth with forceps."
There are three planned survey sites in the Park: in Queensbury, Schroon Lake and Black Brook. The work will also be done at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, a historically common area for Lyme-carrying ticks.
Thilan Tudor, a sophomore at Middlebury in Vermont, is one of the students who will help with the study.
"When I saw the opportunity, I jumped on it," Tudor said. "My parents might be a little terrified, but I think it's really great that we're targeting something that's emerging here. It's not established, but it could be."
Prusinski said the students involved in the survey will all wear protective clothing and take the necessary precautions so they don't get bitten. The ticks will be sorted at Trudeau, then brought to the Health Department lab for testing.
The pilot study is expected to cost $15,000 to $20,000. It's being paid for by a grant from the Walker Foundation, the Health Department and funds secured by state Sen. Betty Little. Paul Smith's College also received funding from the Cullman Audubon Society to buy equipment.
Sellati said the project will need more financial support if it's really going to get off the ground.
"As we demonstrate evidence of success in our pilot efforts, that will be the impetus to apply for larger, more extensive grant support," said Dr. Jonathan Krant, a rheumatologist at Adirondack Health. "This is laying the groundwork for future investigative effort."
Prusinski said the state doesn't have the resources on its own to survey such a large area.
"This partnership provides us with an opportunity to get boots on the ground collecting more samples from a larger area we wouldn't be able to reach with our limited resources at the state," she said.
"That's why we need to convince the senators in New York, Connecticut and Vermont to establish a research center of excellence at the Trudeau Institute," Sellati said. "This is the front line of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases."