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The legacy of a high school science project lives on and may soon find itself being prescribed by doctors.

Researchers at George Mason University’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) say the inspiration for a new early-detection Lyme disease test came from a high school student’s senior science project.

In 2010, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology senior Temple Douglas, who is now a 21-year-old rising senior at Princeton University, began researching methods for early detection of Lyme disease. Douglas became interested in Lyme disease detection after her sister, brother and mother became infected.

“I started working on the Lyme disease project for my senior research project,” said Douglas, who spent two summers enrolled as a student intern in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program. “After graduating I spend another summer in the ASSIP working on the Lyme disease test; and last summer I spent a few weeks at GMU to work on the project.”

Mason research assistant professor Alessandra Luchini worked with Douglas on her Lyme disease test and continues the student’s research. Luchini, who was named one of Popular Science magazine’s “Brilliant 10” in 2011, works in labs at CAPMM, located on the university’s Prince William campus.

“The test is looking for pieces of the [Lyme disease] bacteria in the urine,” Luchini said. Researchers like Luchini are evaluating a new urine-sample test, which uses technology called a “Nanotrap” to gather antigen in urine allowing for earlier detection.

“The technology was originally developed through grants by the NIH [National Institutes of Health] for cancer research,” said Mason’s CAPMM co-director Lance Liotta. “The Nanotrap uses bait that attracts Lyme antigen… Since we’re sweeping all the Lyme antigen from the urine, we can detect earlier because of the [more dense] concentration.”

Mason has partnered with Ceres Nanosciences in testing and developing a commercial product that could be used in physicians’ offices as early as 2014.

“We’re conducting a large study validating our results,” Liotta said. “We have a lot of interest from the legislature on this because there is new legislation and new laws on screening patients for Lyme disease. So it’s a hot topic in Virginia.”

Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vectorborne illness in the U.S. and was the sixth most common nationally notifiable disease in 2011 despite cases being limited mostly to the Northeast and upper Midwest, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports that 96 percent of the Lyme disease cases reported in 2011 were from 13 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Lyme disease prominence in Virginia – a confirmed 756 in 2011—has caused state legislators to push for greater attention to the disease. During the 2013 session, the General Assembly approved legislation sponsored by Del. Barbara Comstock (R-Dist. 34) of McLean. The new law requires physicians to provide patients, who test positive for the presence of Lyme disease, a written notice about the disease, about testing for Lyme disease and about the need for the patient to contact a doctor with questions or concerns.

In May, Comstock was joined by other state legislators who visited researchers from George Mason University’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine on the Prince William campus to learn more about developments there and plans to partner with Ceres Nanosciences in commercializing a test kit.

“Commercialization means getting it out to the market where it could be used by physicians,” said Ceres Chief Executive Officer Ross Dunlap, adding that the pricing of the test would likely be comparable to currently available Lyme disease tests. “We have our own labs and our own team that’s been working with the Mason team… From the beginning we have been completely funding the research with the Mason team.”

The partnership with Mason, Dunlap said, is very hands on and reciprocal.

“We have actually formed very tight connections with Mason on other projects,” said Dunlap, adding that his involvement includes visiting doctors’ offices to collect urine samples for the study.

Both Dunlap and Mason researchers said shoppers would not likely see over-the-counter Lyme disease testing kits for several years. However, they added that this option might not be too far away.

Douglas, who is studying this summer at King’s College London, said she feels lucky to have the opportunity to continue research and work with Mason scientists.

“I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to pursue my idea, and I am honored that the project was continued after I went to the university,” she said.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com