An interview with Jinyu ShanJinyu Shan is a Research Fellow at Phelix Research and Development and the Chief Scientific Officer at the University of Leicester, UK. He is a member of the Microbiology Society and, in this interview, he tells us about how he is using his expertise in phage to develop novel diagnostics to treat Lyme disease.
Tell us more about your role and area of research.
I am a Research Fellow funded by the charity Phelix Research and Development. We aim to address the lack of a sensitive diagnostic for Lyme disease and co-infections. We adopt a novel approach, based on my previous expertise in phage (viruses associated with the bacterial genomes) biology and ecology, and take advantage of the fact that most pathogenic bacteria, carry on average, two to six complete or partial temperate phages.
These sequences form the bases of a template, to which real time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) primers and probes can be designed. We have previously revealed a tight correlation between phages and Lyme bacteria, and successfully developed and validated a qPCR assay for the diagnosis of Lyme disease. We have shown, on patient samples, that this phage-based qPCR is six times as sensitive as the standard serological test. Ongoing and future research will focus on Lyme co-infections, including relapsing fever and Bartonella infection.
Why is your research important?
Lyme disease is an emerging bacterial infection. It is transmitted to humans when ticks (vehicle of Borrelia, the causative bacterium of Lyme disease) drink our blood. Lyme disease is the most commonly reported tick-born disease in the United States, with over an estimated 300,000 cases every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In Europe, the number of Lyme disease cases have increased steadily over the last two decades with an estimated 150,000 cases reported annually. Known as ‘The great imitator’, symptoms of Lyme disease are easily confused with other diseases.
Doctors find it extremely difficult to help Lyme disease patients, due to a lack of reliable and sensitive diagnostic methods to detect and distinguish Borrelia from co-infections. This lack of effective laboratory diagnostics results in empirical decision-making and antibiotic misuse/overuse. There is, thus, an urgent need for novel diagnostics that could offer sensitive diagnosis to guide clinicians to treat patients with appropriate antibiotics accordingly.
What are the challenges you face in your work and how do you try to overcome them?
Despite the progress that has been achieved in Lyme diagnostic development, a lack of early and effective diagnosis of Lyme disease remains a major cause of misdiagnosis and long term patient suffering.
Currently, physicians rely on clinical practice for Lyme disease diagnosis, prognosis and treatment; this traditional model cannot, unfortunately, meet with the demand for objective and demonstrable options. In certain cases, these procedures could lead to high morbidity and contribute to additional healthcare costs.
There is a significant need for a reliable blood test, which could aid the diagnosis of Lyme disease, particularly when the current FDA-approved serological test is too low in sensitivity and missing early diagnosis in Lyme patients; where the antibodies against Borrelia haven’t yet been produced. Phages (particularly prophages) have proven to be tightly correlated with their bacterial hosts. We aim to exploit phages as markers to detect infectious disease.
Why does microbiology matter?
Microbiology is a discipline studying microbes. We have been living with microbes for as long as civilization has. Although most of the time, microbes come into spotlight as ‘deadly’ destructive forces that left an unforgettable mark on human history (e.g. The Black Death) and modern life (e.g. Coronavirus); microbes also play an indispensable role in promoting human health (e.g. antibiotic production) and prosperity (wine etc.).
Microbiology matters as long as humans thrive. Let’s face it, microbes are part of the global community, understanding microbial communities will be as important as having a casual conversation with your neighbours.
Why is it important to be a member of an organisation like the Microbiology Society?
I joined the Microbiology Society in 2003, during the first couple of months when I took up a PhD candidate position at the University of Warwick. I had completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees in China and had no idea what academic life would be like.
The Society has been such a blessing to me. It bought me to my first academic conference in the UK and my first overseas conference in America, thanks to the travel grants offered by Microbiology Society. My confidence and skills in delivering scientific presentations, improved after presenting at the Society’s conferences.
I encourage young scientists to join the Microbiology Society; especially if English is not your mother tongue. The Society will provide you with plenty of opportunities to practice the language and there will be plenty of warm-hearted colleagues helping you along the way.