Results for Lyme disease tests can take up to two weeks, and on eastern Long Island, where rates for Lyme disease are highest in the county, time can be of the essence — that’s part of the reason why one East Hampton doctor is aiding a national effort to improve Lyme disease testing and diagnosis.
Dr. George Dempsey, of East Hampton Family Medicine, is part of a group of researchers led by the California-based Bay Area Lyme Foundation creating the Lyme Disease Biobank. His hope is that the effort will lead to more accurate and rapid testing results.
“It opens up a lot more diverse research and also encourages collaboration,” Dr. Dempsey said of the biobank. “With my own patients, if someone had a tick disease, and seemed to have early Lyme, they could volunteer to donate some blood.”
The Biobank is a large collection of disease samples available to researchers aiming to better diagnose and understand tick-borne infections, according to a June 2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology by Lyme Disease Biobank researchers, including Dr. Dempsey.
That study also found that the most common Lyme disease test failed to confirm the diagnosis of 71 percent of symptomatic individuals in “endemic areas.”
“The main thrust is to develop a better earlier test that can be done in the office as well,” Dr. Dempsey said.
Created in 2014, the Biobank already has over 1,000 participant samples, according to a press release from Dr. Dempsey. He noted that it was important for him to engage in this research because of Lyme disease’s prevalence on eastern Long Island.
A multi-year study by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services published in 2019 found that East Hampton and Shelter Island had the highest percentages of adult ticks carrying Lyme disease in Suffolk County at 66 percent.
Dr. Dempsey said that’s one reason why collecting samples from eastern Long Island has been a particular focus for the project.
“We certainly could get more samples if more people were aware of it, we could get a lot more samples,” Dr. Dempsey said.
Anyone with a new tick bite or experiencing early-stage symptoms of Lyme disease can visit Dr. Dempsey’s office at 200 Pantigo Road in East Hampton to donate a small sample of blood, answer questions about their symptoms and receive a $50 gift card, he noted. The office can be reached at 631-329-8430.
He also raised a reason for faster and more accurate Lyme disease testing pertinent to the South Fork’s high degree of summertime transience.
“There are a lot of people who are unaware, and that carries the risk that then they go home, wherever they are, to places where they don’t even know that they should be testing for it,” he said.
For researchers to access the data from the Biobank, Dr. Dempsey said they must apply to the Biobank’s scientific board, which screens outside scientists to ensure the samples will be used for a “legitimate purpose.”
If bitten by a tick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that “in general,” trying to have the tick tested is not recommended because of quality control concerns in testing centers, and because a tick positive for Lyme disease does not necessarily mean infection was transmitted.
Instead, the CDC encourages those bitten by a tick to watch for symptoms, including a fever, chills, muscle and joint aches, or a rash three to 30 days after being bitten, and to seek medical attention if observed.
“Our collective understanding of tick-borne disease and the science of immunology increases with every volunteer who contributes,” Dr. Dempsey said.