Friday, March 30, 2012

7 Did Isabel Diterich Have The Cure For Chronic Lyme Disease?

One researcher whose papers I've been reading recently is Isabel Diterich's. Several years ago she published two papers on Lyme disease which grabbed my attention because they not only revealed a hypothesis of immunosuppression caused by Borrelia burgdorferi spirochetes - but they also revealed a potential cure for chronic Lyme disease.

I say "potential" here with this caveat:

While the treatment did appear turn a man who was disabled into what sounds like the picture of health for at least eight years, he had to take filgrastim for almost two weeks. And filgrastim is an immune modulating drug which can have serious side effects in some people - there have even been a few fatalities.

However, most of the people who have suffered serious side effects from filgrastim were cancer and leukemia patients who already had serious health problems and were at greater risk for being affected by the drug. And most patients - including cancer patients - experience less dramatic effects of fatigue and joint pain from the use of filgrastim - something Lyme disease patients suffer with anyway.

Scary sounding as it is to take a drug which has the risk of serious or even fatal side effects, one has to consider that if better and safer immune modulating drugs could be developed - along with antibiotics - together they might be the cure for chronic Lyme disease.

To quote from Isabel Ditrech's 2003 thesis, "Immunomodulation and new therapeutic strategies in Lyme borreliosis":
"5.3.1 Case report

A 51 year old patient with a history of frequent exposures to tick bites presented with polyarthritis in the fingers and feet. Arthritic destruction of synovial clefts mainly in the metacarpophalangial and in the proximal interphalangial joints of fingers and feet could be demonstrated by X-ray. Low, but clearly positive, serum titers of Borrelia IgG by ELISA and immunoblot (p100 +++) and a negative IgM-ELISA (both MaxPettenkofer-Institute, Munich, Germany) corroborated diagnosis of late stage Borrelia infection.  
A standard two week i.v. treatment with 2 g/day Ceftriaxone (Rocephin,Hoffmann LaRoche, Grenzach-Whylen, Germany) led to transient improvement of symptoms, i.e. subjective decline of arthritis, that lasted for eight weeks. Then, the inflammatory symptoms returned and became progressively worse, indicating that the treatment had probably failed.  
We hypothesized that persistence of Borrelia might be due to a disabled immunocompetence of the patient. Therefore, we tested whether a complete eradication of the pathogen could be achieved by combining immunosupportive treatment with antibiosis. The experimental treatment regimen, applied with the informed consent of the patient, was as follows: First week 2 g Ceftriaxone (Rocephin ) i.v. daily, second week 480 µg s.c. Filgrastim (Neupogen, Amgen, Thousand Oaks, USA) every second day, and third week 2 g Ceftriaxone daily plus 300 µg Filgrastim every second day (Figure 5.1). Neutrophil counts were determined by a Coulter STKS counter (Coulter, Krefeld, Germany)"
So this lays out the background of this individual case report on one patient. What were the results? More quoted from the above thesis:
"5.4.1 Patient case report

The combination therapy of Ceftriaxone plus Filgrastim was well tolerated. Only after the first injection of Filgrastim the patient reported acute but moderate pain in the previously affected joints i.e. the shoulder, fingers and knees. 
Circulating neutrophil counts increased from 1400 to 17000 cells/µl within 24 h after the first Filgrastim injection. Monocyte numbers increased about two-fold, while there was little effect on lymphocytes (Figure 5.2a). The plateau of neutrophil counts at about 17000 cells/µl blood was maintained until one day after the end of treatment.  
The subjective symptoms disappeared during the following six weeks after the treatment. The patient reported that he was able to resume previously abandoned sporting activities including mountain climbing and downhill skiing. Moreover, fine mechanical skills needed for piano playing were restored. 
After three months, the Borrelia IgG titer was negative. The intensity of the immunoblot at this time point was significantly reduced (from +++ to +) and two years later it was negative. Eight years after treatment the patient is still free of arthritic symptoms."

So it seems like at least for this patient, this method of treatment changed their life so that they could return to all the things they used to do that they loved. I would have liked to know more about this patient and how he is doing today, given it has been years since this study was completed.

And I'd like to know if a similar treatment plan would work for me and everyone else suffering with chronic Lyme disease. To take ceftriaxone and filgrastim for a couple weeks - or something similar, but with fewer side effects - only to be done with this nightmare and get on with my life would be fantastic.

It would mean no more attempts at long term antibiotic treatment and experimentation with alternative medicine. I would just get treatment for three weeks and be done with it... Sounds like a plan to me.

Reflecting on this, over the years there have been anecdotes - stories I've heard passed around Lyme disease support groups - about the occasional chronic Lyme disease patient who went on to discover they had cancer, went through chemotherapy and other supportive treatment for their cancer - only end treatment not only going into remission from cancer  - but saying that they think their chronic Lyme disease is cured, too.

These stories have been around for a while, but I've never personally known anyone who went through this process. It would be great to get a confirmation from their doctors and families that after chemotherapy and supportive treatments, they had a notable and lasting improvement and feel like their old selves again. What if a drug like filgrastim played a role in their recovery?

This isn't the only example of a chronic condition where the cause has been unknown and the symptoms can be debilitating and lead to years of loss of productivity and physical pain... let's consider chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as CFS/ME or CFSIDS.

A study completed last year in Norway showed that rituximab had a profoundly positive effect on people with CFS/ME. In this study, a few people seemed to go into complete remission from their CFS and returned to work and led normal lives. It didn't work for everyone - 40% of study participants did not experience improvement from the drug. It's unknown why. But that it worked so well for the rest of treated patients deserves a closer look because it begins to reveal the mechanisms behind what causes CFS/ME.

While there has been speculation that chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic Lyme disease (CLD) are the same condition, a recent study on the different proteins found in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of both CFS and CLD patients has challenged this notion. At least in terms of objective evidence, the proteins in the CSF of both groups are different. However, what if part of the underlying process behind what causes these conditions is the same?

Quoting the above well-written article from the Phoenix Rising ME web site, let's look at the mechanism behind rituximab and what it does in people with CFS/ME:
"Rituximab is believed to deplete B-cells in two ways; by recruiting other members of the immune system to attack them and by locking on a receptor on the B-cell that tells the cell to kill itself. B-cells are an integral part of the immune response. Until they are activated, B-cells quietly troll the blood, collecting and digesting molecules called antigens that appear to be suspicious. Once they are digested they place bits of them on MHC molecules for T-cells to inspect. If the T-cells decide those molecules came from a pathogen, they turn around and turn the B-cells on – transforming them into antibody producing machines (‘plasma cells’) that can generate from 100s to thousands of antibodies per second.

These antibodies or immunoglobulins are specifically manufactured to attach to a pathogen and physically stop it from locking onto our cells. The antibodies also alert macrophages to come gobble up the pathogen and they turn on other parts of the immune system. B-cells are key players in the immune response but if they go too far; if they get too zealous, they can mistakenly attack our own cells and overactive B-cell activity has been implicated in many auto-immune disorders."
If this sounds familiar to you, then you might have been reading about Viral Genetics' targeted peptide therapy, VGV-L, for treating chronic Lyme disease.

Viral Genetics' patent states the following about treating chronic Lyme disease:
"[0116] It is believed according to the invention that Borrelia burgdorferi also produces a Toll ligand for TLR2. Replacement of the CLIP on the surface of the B cell by treatment with a thymus derived peptide with high affinity for the MHC fingerprint of a particular individual, would result in activation of the important Tregs that can in turn cause reduction in antigen-non-specific B cells. Thus treatment with thymus derived peptides could reactivate specific Tregs and dampen the pathological inflammation that is required for the chronic inflammatory condition characteristic of Lyme Disease. With the appropriate MHC analysis of the subject, a specific thymus derived peptide can be synthesized to treat that subject. Thus individuals with all different types of MHC fingerprints could effectively be treated for Lyme disease."
An easier-to-understand explanation can be found elsewhere - this research report revealed how VGV-L is used to treat HIV. In this instance, just substitute "chronic Lyme Disease" for "HIV" and you can get a picture of what VGV-L does:
"The conventional approach to HIV vaccines, for example, is to develop therapeutic vaccines to stimulate immune system response. The problem with the conventional approach is that the infected cells are camouflaged and not visible to the body’s immune system. The body’s powerful T-cells are unable to seek out and destroy the infected camouflaged cells because they cannot recognize that the cell is infected.

To understand the issue, think of the Klingon space ship on Star Trek that has its cloaking device activated. The U.S.S. Enterprise has no way of knowing where the enemy is in space. The only hope it has in winning the battle is for the Klingon vessel to be de-cloaked and, once revealed, use their ammunition to destroy it. What’s worse in the case of HIV is that while the infected cell is cloaked, it is also effectively setting off an alarm that triggers the immune system to create inflammation. Why is this important? It turns out that this inflammation is critical for allowing the HIV virus to spread to even more cells.

Many other viruses and bacteria also trigger inflammation but, unlike HIV, the inflammation does not necessarily allow or facilitate the spread of the virus or bacteria itself. However, in these cases, the inflammation itself is harmful because it creates a hostile and inflamed environment that provides the necessary components for a potential autoimmune reaction that can cause the immune system to attack and damage one’s own body. Viral believes that diseases such as Lyme Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and others involve this inflammatory mechanism.

To use the Star Trek metaphor, what Dr. Newell Rogers has developed with TPT is a de-cloaking device for the body’s immune system to use in its pursuit of invaders. Through the development and use of computational biology programs and databases, Dr. Newell Rogers and her team have created a way to remove the camouflage that is cloaking the infected cells, flagging them with custom peptides that allow the body’s immune system to seek out and destroy them.

The key discovery of the TPT platform is that a self-peptide (in other words, one that is naturally produced and a healthy part of one’s normally functioning immune system) called ―CLIP2 that was until now thought only to exist primarily inside certain immune system cells, is sometimes displayed on the outside of cells, thus leading to harmful inflammation. Dr. Newell Rogers discovered that the products of some pathogen invaders such as viruses and bacteria, when picked up on the surface of certain immune system cells, sometimes incorrectly cause those cells to display CLIP externally (i.e. ―ectopically).

Normally, when an invader strikes, this process may promote needed inflammation early in infection, but it is quickly controlled when a more specific, immune response takes over, allowing a highly-targeted immune response to be marshaled against the pathogen. However, when CLIP is improperly displayed, displayed for too long or displayed chronically, the immune system is marshaled to promote a broad and unspecified inflammation without the specific targeting, leaving open the possibility that this inflammation actually turns against one’s own cells. Replacing CLIP is the focus of Viral’s Targeted Peptides because it turns off the harmful alarm."
Read more from the source - including about individual MHC genetic profiles here:

They're using Star Trek metaphors to describe this... I think that's pretty geeky. Awesome.

So, it seems that whether there is current infection or not, VGV-L may be one way to effectively treat chronic Lyme disease and lower inflammation due to runaway immune dysregulation. And if infection is currently present, then it looks like VGV-L will trigger T cells that recognize the infection and summon functional B-cells to fight it.

Now, getting back to Isabel... Remember Isabel, the researcher who used filgrastim and ceftriaxone to treat a patient with chronic Lyme disease about a decade ago? Yes, that Isabel.

Well, she wrote another paper, along with Rauter, Kirshning, and Hartung: "Borrelia burgdorferi-Induced Tolerance as a Model of Persistence via Immunosuppression"

The abstract states:
"If left untreated, infection with Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato may lead to chronic Lyme borreliosis. It is still unknown how this pathogen manages to persist in the host in the presence of competent immune cells. It was recently reported that Borrelia suppresses the host's immune response, thus perhaps preventing the elimination of the pathogen (I. Diterich, L. Härter, D. Hassler, A. Wendel, and T. Hartung, Infect. Immun. 69:687-694, 2001). Here, we further characterize Borrelia-induced immunomodulation in order to develop a model of this anergy. 
We observed that the different Borrelia preparations that we tested, i.e., live, heat-inactivated, and sonicated Borrelia, could desensitize human blood monocytes, as shown by attenuated cytokine release upon restimulation with any of the different preparations. Next, we investigated whether these Borrelia-specific stimuli render monocytes tolerant, i.e. hyporesponsive, towards another Toll-like receptor 2 (TLR2) agonist, such as lipoteichoic acid from gram-positive bacteria, or towards the TLR4 agonist lipopolysaccharide. Cross-tolerance towards all tested stimuli was induced. Furthermore, using primary bone marrow cells from TLR2-deficient mice and from mice with a nonfunctional TLR4 (strain C3H/HeJ), we demonstrated that the TLR2 was required for tolerance induction by Borrelia, and using neutralizing antibodies, we identified interleukin-10 as the key mediator involved."

Where have I heard something like this before? Oh, Dr. Karen Newell Rogers - that's right - she discussed this at a recent Lyme disease research conference:

"[...]Some researchers would argue that chronic inflammation requires the continuous presence of bacteria, whereas others would suggest that continuous presence of bacteria does not always result in inflammation and that exacerbations of chronic symptoms could result from infection with a different organism--or that chronic symptoms could re-cur from unrelated pro-inflammatory events. Potentially reconciling these seemingly conflicting perspectives on the mechanism of Lyme disease may be the effect of Borrelia burgdoreri’s bacterial by-products on Toll Like Receptors, (TLR)-mediated immune activation. 

TLR appear to be the “gate-keepers” of an inflammatory response. Bacteria, including Borrelia, produce products that, by binding to TLRs on the cell surface, promote leukocyte activation, cytokine production, and acute inflammation. In some genetic backgrounds of mice, acute inflammation is sufficient to fight off infection and resolve disease. In other mouse strains, the pathogens, or in this case the bacteria, get past TLR-induced inflammation and remain symptomatically undetectable in cells and tissues (Barthold, etc); Barthold et al. have found that no matter how severe or mild the disease in any of the genetically inbred strains of mice, there was no more inflammatory disease when the bacteria were eliminated."
And where else have I heard about IL-10 production before? Oh, right - Rituximab, and research on gender differences in antibody response to Borrelia burgdorferi...

From the previously mentioned Phoenix Rising ME article:
"While Rituximab is busy destroying B-cells there is also evidence that it may actually be turning on NK cells – which, of course, habitually underperform in CFS. Rituximab also appears to increase production of IL-10 – a key anti-inflammatory cytokine that may be a protective agent in ME/CFS – and reduces levels of the powerful pro-inflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor. A review article suggested that Rituximab was able restore Th1/Th2 balance in the immune system. These results suggest Rituximab could be working as an immunodulator helping to re-balance the immune response by turning down the over-activated parts of it and bumping up the under-active ones."
All this ties together quite nicely, it seems, with other research I have listed here - forming a master hypothesis with different pieces. Does it hold up to scrutiny? Tell me - I'd love to hear your ideas.

But here is the master hypothesis, in its infancy:

1) Host genetics play a role in the ability of mice (and possibly people!) in clearing Borrelia burgdorferi infections. See:

The host's genetic background in developing chronic infection is, however, open to debate - and may not play as big a role in disease as Borrelia burgdorferi s.l.'s genetic diversity/VlsE recombination on different plasmids:

2) The genetics of Borrelia burgdorferi strains play a role in how quickly they disseminate into host tissues and also how well they can generate inflammation - which leads to overstimulation of the immune system in production of poor quality plasma b-cells, but also, ironically, immune suppression because of the mechanisms Isabel Diterich and Karen Newell Rogers describe. Refer, also, to Tunev and Barthold et al's research, "Lymphoadenopathy during Lyme Borreliosis Is Caused by Spirochete Migration-Induced Specific B Cell Activation": (refer to other research on relationship between b-cells/plasma cells and T cells)

It could also be that not having enough iNKT cells is an issue:

2a) The changing pattern of antigenic variation during this time may also be why patients produce an undulating immune response in measured antibodies which echo a more drawn-out response similar to relapsing fever: (read comments, too)

It may not be that the tests are lousy for measuring antibodies which are present to Borrelia burgdorferi. It may be that the antibodies are not present because they are tied up in immune complexes.

2b) There is also the possibility that Borrelia burgdorferi is occasionally intracellular in nature, though there is not enough in vivo evidence to support this. If so, it would also explain why an undulatory immune response might be present:

Whether or not items #2a and #2b are relevant here remains to be seen - the main point is that Borrelia burgdorferi can lead to both overstimulation of the immune system as well as immune suppression.

Based on this, I surmise that may not be that blood tests are so lousy at detecting antibodies produced by the presence Borrelia burgdorferi. It may be that there is no reliable way to detect the presence of infection by correlating them with the presence of antibody responses (seronegative Lyme disease).

3) What gender you are and your hormone levels and metabolism may play a role in persisting symptoms and prolonged infection as well, so there is ALSO a metabolic cause behind chronic Lyme disease. How well the immune system can respond to initial infection to begin with seems to play a role in developing chronic Lyme disease, as even 10% of acute cases of Lyme disease result in treatment failure. (read comments, too) (this may provide the scientific link for the anecdotes that people who develop chronic Lyme disease generally were under more stress when they contracted the disease)

4) If there are persister cells, this is an additional consideration - throwing more antibiotics at a pathogen which is antibiotic tolerant when it is a persister cell will, at most, keep the infection from getting worse but it won't eliminate it.

See also:
The research of Kim Lewis on persister cells:

And it may be that persister cells are more likely to be on the scene earlier, depending on how appropriate a given antibiotic is for treating specific genospecies - refer to item #2 above, but also:

5) Because the host has a sub-optimal immune system, even with long term antibiotics, a subset of the population will have trouble clearing the remaining spirochetes after antibiotics are stopped. Additional antibiotics plus a treatment which eliminates low quality plasma b-cells and promotes the activity of Treg cells which recognize current infection could overturn the dysregulated immune system.

What does this boil down to?

Easy: The argument of "is it a chronic infection or is it an immune disorder, possibly autoimmune" is a false dichotomy and too simplistic.

The circumstances which give rise to chronic Lyme disease are more complex than that, and if people want to solve the chronic Lyme problem, they have to roll up their sleeves and look at more puzzle pieces and how they fit together.

Image credit: 
Original image by Muns on Wikimedia Commons; derived image above by Schlurcher.


  1. I am not sure how much can be drawn from the case report as they did give the patient two additional weeks of Ceftriaxone. What exactly led to the improvement Ceftriaxone, Filgrastim or the combination.

    If one looks at the CFS/ME study Rituximab did the trick on it's own. In addition, the following comment really stands out

    The biggest impact the study may have, though, may not be the drug itself but the big arrow it’s pointing at the immune system...

    In addition,

    Most studies now still simply treat people with ME/CFS as if they were all the same, but the Rituximab study rather starkly points out how untrue this is.

    Exciting results and conclusions. Interestingly, coming from a country not known for it's role in CFS/ME. I think that speaks volumes about the role politics most probably plays in human disease.

  2. Also, I would highly recommend reading the comments on the Rituximab study.


  3. radicale,

    I am hashing out these ideas as a rough draft, so I don't expect them to be completely solid yet. I still wanted to put them out here for discussion.

    I think that the immune system's behavior during Lyme disease has to be fully investigated and treatment for its dysregulation is needed. Is it the Ceftriaxone? Is it the Filgrastim? Read Isabel's paper. She suggests that both are needed and why. (The paper is in English, for anyone else reading this comment - even though it's a German url.)

    Granted, Filgrastim and Rituximab are not the same drug. They don't work the same way. But I wanted to bring them up as examples of drugs which change the way the immune system works and lead to improvement in health. I don't see as much discussion on these drugs online as I'd like to see.

  4. radicale,

    Thanks for linking to the PLoS ONE comments on the rituximab study, I hadn't read them prior to this. I found the comments thread on "Rituximab-driven Improvement of CFS Symptoms: Suppression of Autoantibody-mediated Autoimmunity or Enhanced Cell-mediated Immunity Following B Cell Depletion?" to be of particular interest to me, because I have thought if one could offer such a treatment to chronic Lyme disease patients and see how we respond that we'd at least know which of these processes plays a role in our condition. It would begin to put to rest the controversy over what causes chronic Lyme disease, too, and put more researchers to work in a given direction.

    So far as I can see, the signs are pointing to cell-mediated immunity issues and maybe some autoimmune issues in some (but not all patients) - and I suspect it's more the former than the later for chronic Lyme disease. We'll have to see how Viral Genetics' VGV-L product works in clinical trials to get a clearer idea of what is going on.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I'd like to know the gist of Dr. Wendel's comment.
    I have a friend who succeeded, he believes, in beating a bad case of Lyme after a late-ish dx and extensive multiple oral abx (2 yrs). I am on a similar track and I echo the sentiments stated in the post regarding risk/reward to get over this disease once and for all, or at least until God forbid another tick bite?

    1. Anonymous 7:39

      I have emailed Dr. Wendel to ask if it is okay to republish his comment and to receive further information from him; it was not clear that he intended the comment to be made public given contact information within it and my initial posting was withdrawn as I considered it an accident.

      I am still awaiting Dr. Wendel's reply and hope to have a more involved exchange with him about his experience with Lyme disease and immunological research.

      Regarding your friend: Observationally and by anecdote, some people do seem to get better with longer term antibiotics - while others do not. I'm not sure what sets one group apart from another, either, other than the earlier an infection is treated, the more likely a positive outcome occurs. The longer one waits to treat, the more likely complications occur and possibly permanent or slow-to-heal damage which is not affected by antibiotics and is only helped by time and living a healthy life. I am hopeful that further drug research will take place which will speed the healing process and make existing antibiotics more effective - and possibly see the development of immune modulating drugs which can correct immune dysregulation which may make it more difficult to beat any lingering infection.


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