Murdoch Uni research group to lead project on tick-borne Lyme disease-like illness


A new Australian Research Council grant means Murdoch University will continue to pioneer research into understanding tick-borne diseases in Australia.
A new Australian Research Council grant means Murdoch University will continue to pioneer research into understanding tick-borne diseases in Australia.

MURDOCH University will help lead a new research project seeking to uncover why a growing number of Australians are being diagnosed with a Lyme disease-like illness, presumed to be tick-borne.

The Vector and Water-Borne Pathogen Research Group (VWBPRG) at Murdoch University, together with research partners from the universities of Sydney and Queensland, has been awarded a three-year Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage grant titled ‘Tiresome ticks: Ecology and transmission of tick-borne disease in Australia’.

Public and government concern about the potential for tick-borne diseases in people has increased considerably in recent years, culminating in a parliamentary inquiry into Lyme disease-like illness, which kicked off in Perth in April.

Chief investigator and Murdoch University professor Peter Irwin said uncertainty about Australian Lyme disease-like illness required evidence-based science to identify the microorganisms responsible and provide conclusive data about the speed of infection after tick attachments.

“Tick-associated reactions are frequently reported in eastern Australia in areas that are experiencing unprecedented population growth,” he said.

“Given VWBPRG research findings and what is known about the vectorial capacity of ticks elsewhere in the world, it is not unreasonable to imagine that some cases of this clinical syndrome are associated with tick bites.

“We hope that this research will ultimately lead to improved diagnostic tests and management protocols for tick-borne diseases in Australia.”

The innovative project brings together a team of scientists with expertise in tick identification to provide a systematic and co-ordinated approach to determining the range of potential pathogens in wildlife and their ticks, characterising them, and conducting transmission studies of the organisms identified.

The new research will build on the foundations already established by the VWBPRG through previous ARC linkage grants focusing on the application of state-of-the-art molecular techniques to provide new information about the biology and transmission dynamics of the bacteria and parasites, and their potential to cause disease in wildlife, domesticated animals and humans.

Fellow Murdoch University Professor Una Ryan and researcher Charlotte Oskam will join Professor Irwin on the project.

“Most vector-borne diseases occur in people after they have encroached into natural habitats where the tick and wildlife reservoirs of the pathogenic organisms coexist,” Professor Ryan said.

“With funding from a previous ARC Linkage grant, we successfully developed a toolkit using next generation sequencing to uncover a plethora of tick-associated bacteria, providing new information to inform the debate on this highly vexed issue.

“Our track record with vector-borne disease has seen our research group considered the leading research team in Australia. This project aims to build on our research, by taking the expertise, tools, methods, network of collaborations and findings to the next stage.”