IN light of the discovery of a new species of Borrelia in Australian ticks, Murdoch University researcher Charlotte Oskam has emphasised that it is far too early to speculate on whether the bacteria is pathogenic to humans.
Doctor Oskam, along with Professor Una Ryan, were recently called upon to present evidence at the government’s senate inquiry into the possibility of a locally-acquired tick-borne, Lyme-like disease existing in Australia.
“We told the inquiry that we had found a novel species of Borrelia in echidna ticks but that more research and funding was required to determine whether it was potentially harmful to humans,” Dr Oskam said.
“The echidna tick that we found this new Borrelia in is not known to bite humans, so at this stage I would say it is unlikely but we really don’t know much about its potential to cause disease.
“The next step is to try and identify the same bacteria in animals that might be acting as a reservoir and then to look at human specimens to see if we can find the bacteria there too.”
Dr Oskam has worked for the Vector and Water-borne Pathogen Research Group (VWBPRG), based at Murdoch University, since 2012.
Her expertise lies in extracting DNA from unusual or difficult substrates, a skill that grabbed the attention of VWBPRG co-director Professor Peter Irwin.
“The technology we have in our lab is world-class, it allows us to find bacteria no-one has ever found before,” Dr Oskam said.
“With regards to tick-borne disease in Australia, we really don’t know what is out there so being able to uncover hidden potential pathogens is a great step forward.”
Dr Oskam’s work with VWBPRG earned her a spot as a finalist in Fresh Science, a national competition helping early career researchers share their discoveries, and she has since applied for a grant to examine museum collections to track the emergence and evolution of tick-borne disease within Australia.
“By looking at museum ticks we can form a better understanding of whether certain tick-borne pathogens have been introduced or are native,” she said.
“We know that there are a small number of ticks that were introduced into Australia when other animals and people populated the country and we also know that they brought certain tick-borne pathogens with them, which do not cause disease in humans.
“However, the new Borellia we just identified is unique and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other native, unique bacteria in Australian ticks – bacteria we have no current information about that may or may not be pathogenic to humans.”