Tick Talk: Exploring Professor Stephen Rich’s Pioneering Lyme Disease Research

University of Massachusetts

Professor Stephen Rich is a well-known figure in the chronic Lyme disease community, who is not only an academic but also a celebrity in the field. In this blog post, we delve into his research, background, and thoughts on various topics related to Lyme disease, including tick-borne diseases, tick attachment times, and tick testing.

Professor Stephen Rich’s Background
Originally from upstate New York, Professor Rich earned degrees from the University of Vermont, University of California, and Harvard University. His background is in population genetics, and he has spent most of his career studying tick-borne and mosquito-borne infections. In 2005, he transferred from Tufts to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he built up the Laboratory of Medical Zoology. The lab focuses exclusively on zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted from animals to humans.

Deer Blood and Lyme Disease Transmission
One of the fascinating findings from Rich’s lab, primarily driven by graduate student Pat Pearson, is the discovery that deer blood kills the Lyme agent inside ticks. This research was initiated to understand why deer don’t carry or transmit Lyme disease, despite being important to the ticks. The conclusion was that the serum component of the blood, likely the complement in the serum, kills the Lyme bacterium.

Tick Attachment Times and Transmission
Professor Rich highlights the differences in tick attachment times for various tick-borne diseases. While Lyme disease transmission generally requires a longer attachment time, other tick-borne illnesses can be transmitted more quickly. It is important to recognize this variation in attachment times when discussing the risk of contracting a tick-borne disease.

Mosquitoes, Bed Bugs, and Lyme Disease Transmission
One common question in the Lyme community is whether Lyme disease can be transmitted by other vectors, such as mosquitoes or bed bugs. Professor Rich confirms that the primary vector for Lyme disease is ticks, as they have the complex biological processes necessary for transmission that other vectors lack.

Tick Testing
The CDC does not always support the testing of ticks for pathogens, but Professor Rich’s lab offers tick testing services for those who are interested. The lab currently tests for several pathogens associated with tick-borne diseases, and they are working on making genotyping data available to provide more detailed information about the strains of pathogens found in individual ticks.

Tick Checks and Prevention
Professor Rich emphasizes the importance of tick checks as a key prevention strategy for Lyme disease. While humans primarily rely on visual information, he suggests using our sense of touch to thoroughly check for ticks on our bodies. Additionally, he mentions the development of spatial repellents as a promising area of research for Lyme disease prevention.

The work of Professor Stephen Rich and his lab has made significant contributions to our understanding of Lyme disease and tick-borne illnesses. By studying the complex interactions between ticks, deer, and humans, as well as examining the nuances of transmission and prevention, Rich’s research helps pave the way for better strategies to combat this growing public health concern.