Using tick saliva to treat a deadly heart condition

Proteins found in tick saliva could be used to treat a dangerous type of heart disease which can cause sudden cardiac death in young adults, according to new research funded by the British Heart Foundation and published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Myocarditis occurs when the heart muscle becomes inflamed and is often the result of an infection by common viruses.

During myocarditis, chemicals called chemokines are released in the heart and they attract cells that cause inflammation.

Around 30% of people with myocarditis go on to develop dilated cardiomyopathy and heart failure, which in severe cases can result in the person needing a heart transplant1

Now, researchers from the University of Oxford Medical Sciences Division have have identified a protein within tick saliva which can bind to and neutralise several chemokines, and may be able to prevent this dangerous inflammation.

These proteins, called evasins, help ticks to feed for eight to ten days without being noticed by the host animal.

The evasins are injected into the host where they block the host’s chemokines and prevent the painful inflammation which would normally alert the host to the tick’s presence.

Tick saliva contains around 1,500 to 3,000 proteins depending on the tick species.

The researchers have developed a ‘bug to drug’ pipeline where hundreds of tick saliva proteins are made in yeast cells to rapidly identify tick saliva proteins that have anti-inflammatory properties.

With their latest research, the team have identified several new tick evasins and have shown that one of them, P991_AMBCA, from the cayenne tick found in the Americas, can bind to and block the effect of chemokines which cause inflammation in myocarditis, heart attack and stroke.

BHF Professor Shoumo Bhattacharya, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Oxford, who led the research, said: “Myocarditis is a devastating disease, for which there are currently very few treatments.

“With this latest research, we hope to be able to take inspiration from the tick’s anti-inflammatory strategy and design a life-saving therapy for this dangerous heart condition.

“We may also be able to use the same drugs to treat other diseases where inflammation plays a big part, such as heart attack, stroke, pancreatitis, and arthritis.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “They may not be pretty, but these little creatures could hold the secret to better treatments for a whole range of diseases.

“There’s a long way to go, but tick saliva looks like an exciting, albeit unconventional, area of research.”

1. Caforio et al. 2013 

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