A 68-year-old ecologist in New York has claimed that his immune system kills ticks that bite him.
Dr Richard Ostfeld has spent decades studying the critters in the Hudson Valley and been bitten hundreds of times.
The many pricks have, according to the ecologist, taught his immune cells to recognize the threat and go on the attack — in a condition called acquired tick immunity — helping to protect him from illnesses like Lyme disease.
The results are deadly for the tick and leave Dr Ostfeld with an itchy and burning ‘welt’ where the bite took place that takes a few days to disappear.
Richard Ostweld, 68, from New York, has revealed that he has been bitten by ticks so many times that he now has immunity to the critters
He said that when they bite him he ends up with an itchy and burning welt around the location. But the immune reaction proves fatal for the tick. He is pictured above researching tick populations in the Hudson Valley
Dr Ostweld has been running a five-year project researching ways to reduce the tick population and, thereby, cut the number of Lyme disease cases (Pictured above doing research in the Hudson Valley)
When a tick bites someone, it starts sucking the blood while releasing proteins and molecules into the host’s body to help it evade detection.
But in a few cases, such as for Dr Ostfeld, the immune system has learned to recognize these proteins and launch a counterattack.
One of the main hormones it releases is histamine, which causes blood vessels to widen and draws other immune cells to the site of the attack.
It is not clear how this can prove fatal to ticks, but it is likely the tick would take up a lot of the histamine and white blood cells — which could damage its internal organs.
The condition is rare and only present in a handful of Americans. It is thought to be triggered by repeated tick bites.
Health officials regularly warn people not to get bitten by ticks, however, because of the risk of catching diseases.
Dr Ostfeld told the Insider: ‘I develop an itchy, burning welt at the site of the tick bite, shortly after the tick attempts to embed its mouthparts’.
He explained this would appear even if he was bitten by a tiny larvae tick — which can be no bigger than a grain of sand — and the pain could wake him up in the night.
‘It takes hours to a couple of days for any pathogens to leave the tick and enter your body,’ he added.
Dr Ostfeld said his body’s fast response has likely protected him from tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease — a bacterial infection that can cause facial paralysis, memory problems and death — and babesiosis — which can lead to organ failure and meningitis.
This is because the arachnids are not able to suck his blood for long enough to pass on the pathogens that cause disease.
Dr Ostfeld has spent more than two decades studying ticks in the Hudson Valley and how they transmit Lyme disease to humans.
He has also run a five-year study — called the Tick Project — which looked at ways of reducing the tick population and the risk of catching the disease.
The long hours spent in the field searching for ticks and trying to count them inevitably led to many tick bites, which is likely how he got immunity.
He has never been diagnosed with a disease from ticks, however, with some experts suggesting his body may have fought it off in the early stages.
Ticks are spreading in the US driven by climate change, allowing them to reach further north and be active for longer during the year. This raises the risk of catching Lyme disease
Pictured above are ticks at different stages of growth. Dr Ostfeld said he even suffers an immune reaction to bites from ticks that are no bigger than a grain of sand
The above graph shows cases of Lyme disease reported in the US by year
His case suggests the tantalizing possibility of a vaccine being developed against tick bites.
Dr Ostfeld said: ‘In my mind, a very promising direction is to develop a vaccine against the ticks themselves, against the right choice of proteins and antigens in the ticks’ saliva.’
An estimated 300,000 Americans are bitten by ticks every year, but that number is rising as climate change allows the critters to march ever further north and stay active for longer.
Some 50,000 Americans are now diagnosed with Lyme disease annually, up from 20,000 in the 1990s.
There has been work to develop a vaccine against ticks, but this has focused on Lyme disease rather than the bites themselves.
Scientists did develop a jab against Lyme disease in the late 1990s, Lymerix, but this was pulled from shelves within years of its release amid reports it trigger arthritis.
Efforts were kick-started again by the European Union in 2013, with Pfizer and Valneva receiving funding for a new Lyme disease shot.
This works by injecting proteins from the surface of the bacteria that cause the disease into patients, sparking an immune response.
It has shown promise in early clinical studies and is now in phase three trials being run in parts of the US, Germany and Sweden — among other countries — where Lyme disease is common.
The trial had 6,000 participants when it was launched in 2022, but in February Pfizer revealed it was removing a ‘significant percentage’ of participants amid concerns over poor practice at certain clinical sites.
Results from the trial are expected to be revealed in 2025 at the earliest.
Concerns over developing a vaccine against tick bites include the risks that it could trigger severe allergic reactions that could prove fatal.
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