Nicole Baumgarth was first bitten by the tick bug (metaphorically speaking) at the University of California, Davis, back in the early 2000s. At the time, she knew nothing about the parasitic insect, or the increasingly prevalent Lyme disease associated with its bites, but a colleague was conducting early research and finding unusual results. “I had been studying influenza, so I thought, how hard can this be?” says the immunologist, who grew up in Germany. “But it was actually really difficult.” It turned out ticks were a complex area of study, and she was hooked.
Fast-forward to 2022, when Baumgarth, now a leading expert, was named inaugural director of Johns Hopkins University’s new Lyme and Tickborne Diseases Research and Education Institute, where her work aims to address this rising public health issue, which includes other illnesses like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and alpha-gal syndrome, which causes a red meat allergy. “If we do this right,” says Baumgarth, “we could really make an impact.”
What is the institute’s mission?
We hope to be the basic research arm of the work surrounding tick-borne diseases at Hopkins. We are focusing on the fundamental research that is so critical, and so lacking, when it comes to understanding ticks, the pathogens, such as Borrelia burgdorferi, and the host’s response to infection.
Why is research lacking?
Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses have been quickly on the rise. That’s a combination of factors: It’s the changing climate, it’s humans moving into areas that were not previously inhabited. It’s also really complicated, and there are just not that many people who know anything about ticks. Lyme disease was discovered in the 1980s. That’s a blink of an eye. So one important thing we want to do is increase the number of students and researchers who are excited about working on this.
What are your main areas of focus?
One is the tick itself—we need to understand its biology. And then the tick’s ecology, or the environment in which the tick is in, and how they interact with one another. The third is, of course, the pathogen. And then the last piece is the immune response—the host, and how the host responds, which is an area I’m working in, mainly with mouse models, the normal natural host, but having the proximity to the Lyme Disease Research Center [at Hopkins’ School of Medicine] will allow us to also start looking at human samples to understand where there are similarities and differences.
There is currently no vaccine for Lyme disease. Is that a goal of your research?
The long-term goal is to make a [Lyme] vaccine. But I’m even more excited about the prospect of some work going at Yale University, thinking along the lines of making an anti-tick vaccine rather than a pathogen-specific vaccine. While everyone talks about Lyme, we want to be prepared for a novel pathogen that we may not even be thinking about yet.
If you had a message for the public, what would it be?
I don’t think anybody should panic. And while it’s wonderful to go out into nature, just make sure that you protect yourself, either by wearing long trousers or long sleeves, and check yourself afterwards. Ticks are very, very small, so they can easily be overlooked.