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URI professors breaking new ground on Lyme disease

February 11, 2011

Courtesy of Professor Roberta King

Computer generated model of the tick sulfotransferase 1 showing dopamine as a substrate for the enzyme.

KINGSTON–When South African writer Nadine Gordimer was asked what was the best compliment she had ever been paid she said, "Years and years ago, when I was on a camping trip on a farm, I was bitten by ticks that had brushed off the long grass I'd been walking through. When I complained of this, the old and very unattractive farmer said, 'If I was a tick, I'd also like to bite you.'"

The 20,000 people who contract Lyme disease each year do not feel complimented. The thirsty ticks, part of the arachnid family, are indiscriminate feeders and are still active in weather above 45 degrees. In southern New England, deer ticks have been seen feeding even in the chill of December and January.

But perhaps a new possible scientific pathway will allow for carefree nature hikes in the future. A recent academic collaboration between URI Professors Roberta King and Thomas Mather is working to prevent Lyme disease by studying the inner workings of ticks.

King and Mather were an unlikely collaboration–the two scientists study completely different subjects. King is a biochemist who researches enzymes and proteins, specifically, sulfotransferases which contribute to balancing and regulating numerous biologically active compounds such as estrogen and dopamine. Meanwhile Mather, an entomologist, is (in King's words) a "tick guru" who has been researching vaccines against Lyme disease for more than a decade.

For more information pick up a copy of The Narragansett Times.

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