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Tick-Borne Disease Diagnostics

questing-tick

Spring 2014

While it seemed like a long hard winter for us humans. Under the snow, it was business as usual for ticks.  As people spend more time outdoors, they will be encountering adult ticks that overwintered and are now looking for hosts.

Sample Submission

Ticks submitted to the lab are processed as soon as we get them. We strive to send results within five business days after receiving the specimen. Results are sent by email from the Laboratory of Medical Zoology.

The UMass Laboratory for Medical Zoology (LMZ) tests ticks to determine whether or not they carry the pathogens that cause Lyme Disease and ten other tick-borne pathogens.  The fee for individual tests is $50 per disease test, however by ordering combination tests ($50, inclusive), your tick will be identified, then tested for the most common pathogens carried by that tick species.

Test combos include tick identification, photo-documentation, and DNA extraction. To identify the species of your tick, see URI Tick Encounter Identification Chart. But don't worry, if you choose the wrong tick, we'll correct it and only apply the correct test combo for the tick species identified by our technicians.

The MOST COMMON tests are for Deer tick, Black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) which carry:

Dog tick (Dermocentor variabilis)

Lone Star tick(Amblyomma americanum)

To Submit a Tick:

  • Go to: http://www.tickreport.com  and click on the red TEST A TICK button.
  • Provide the information requested about the tick, the bite and the person bitten.
  • Provide credit card information or write a check as directed.
  • Note the order number on your receipt.
  • Place the tick in a ziplock bag with a small piece of moist paper towel. Label the bag with the order number from the receipt.
  • Place the tick and check (if written) in an envelope and mail it to the Laboratory of Medical Zoology at the address provided on the receipt. 

For specific information, contact:

Dr. Craig Hollingsworth, chollingsworth@umass.edu

Ticks can also be dropped off in person (see below).  

What is the turn-around time for diagnostic results?

We strive to provide results in 5 business days after receipt of the specimen.  Keep in mind that UMass mail can require one extra day for campus distribution.  If you use an overnight service (USPS, UPS or FedEx) ticks are delivered directly to the lab address.

Is your tick good enough?

A number of people have called to ask if their ticks can be analyzed. The answer is almost always "YES." We have successfully processed broken and torn, water-soaked, dried-up and alcohol-bathed ticks. A few extra days in the mailbox will not affect the results. We prefer that you do NOT encase your tick in tape, but if the deed has been done we can deal with it,. The best samples are fresh ticks that have been treated as directed on the sample submission form. If we cannot process your tick, we will refund your fee.

About the diagnostic tests

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing detects the genetic material (DNA) of the Lyme disease bacteria and other pathogens. If a tick contains the specific pathogen, the test will give a positive result. If the tick does not contain the pathogen, we will receive a negative result. The test will NOT indicate whether the tick has transmitted the disease. This depends on the amount of pathogen it is carrying and how long it has fed. A negative result however should assure individual that disease transmission from a particular tick is not expected.

How accurate is the testing process?

The test we use to detect Borrelia burgdorferi sensu latu (the pathogen associated with Lyme disease) is designed to amplify a small fragment of DNA specific to those bacteria. The test is very specific for the particular DNA "barcode" of Borrelia burgdorferi, and will not detect other bacteria.  Under laboratory conditions, these tests are better than 99.9% accurate at detecting as few as three copies of the targeted molecule. Tick specimens sent to us will vary in condition depending on whether the tick is dead, how long its been dead, how it was preserved, what other specimens it may have contacted, etc.  To ensure the tick is good enough for our DNA test, we do an internal positive control on each specimen to detect the DNA of the tick itself. Specimens that do not have recoverable tick DNA (less than 0.1%) cannot be tested for Borrelia or other pathogen.

Tests for Lyme disease in humans are based on detecting antibodies to particular bacterial pathogens (like Borrelia burgdorferi). Most of the human (serological) tests use antibodies to detect antibodies or proteins. The effectiveness of these tests varies widely and high rates of false-positive as well as false-negative tests have been reported.  The DNA-based tests we use on ticks are not susceptible to the pitfalls of serological testing. Related DNA-based tests have been used to detect pathogens in humans, however, we do not conduct such tests.

What the Massachusetts Department of Public Health says about tick test results

  • Tests performed on the ticks are not perfect and they do not test for all infections ticks may be carrying. Therefore, even with a negative result, people should still monitor themselves for the appearance of rash, fever or other unusual symptoms and immediately seek the advice of a health care provider should any symptoms occur.
  • If someone has been infected by a tick bite, symptoms may begin to occur even before the results of tick testing are available. People should not to wait for tick testing results before seeking medical advice should any symptoms develop.
  • A positive test on a tick is not an automatic indication that treatment is needed. A positive test indicates that the tick was infected but not that the tick was successful in spreading the infection to the person bitten. The longer a tick is attached to you, the greater the chance that it will spread infection. Discuss any positive test results with your health care provider.

Ticks can be dropped off in person: Directions

PLEASE do not drop off ticks at the Laboratory of Medical Zoology: this causes the technician to stop processing ticks, delaying the results of everyone's analyses.

Ticks can be dropped off at my office, 201 Agricultural Engineering Building.

On the UMass Amherst campus, locate the Mullins Center. On the map http://www.umass.edu/visitorsctr/downloads/campusmap.pdf , it is located on the lines for A-B and 3-4

There is a traffic light in front of the Mullins Center: turn there to go up the hill toward the Parking Garage.

On your left, you will pass the Physical Plant Complex, then the Textbook Annex.

Immediately after the Textbook Annex is a road, turn left then immediately turn right into the small parking lot. Park and leave your flashers on. You have reached the Agricultural Engineering Building. Walk down the road to the middle of the building, enter the foyer and go upstairs. Enter 209. You may leave your sample on the counter in the bin that says "Please deposit ticks here" or you can look for me. My office is 201 at the end of the hall.​

I submit ticks to the lab each day.

Is Lyme disease (other tick-borne pathogen) present in my town?

If you live in New York-New England, the answer is likely to be "Yes," however you can now see the actual tick testing data from the Laboratory of Medical Zoology. The database includes over 4000 ticks and can be searched for different pathogens by location and date. Click this link to access the LMZ's: Tick-Borne Disease Passive Surveillance Data Base.