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Lehigh Valley

Muhlenberg College students looking for Lyme disease

Muhlenberg College students looking for Lyme disease

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Looking for Lyme disease is the summer mission for some students at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Senior Laura Barbalato wants to attract what most want to repel, ticks.

"Ticks will look at it like a rodent scurrying by and latch on to it," she said of the big white sheet she uses in forests and fields to ferret out the little bugs.

Those picked up are taken to a campus lab and scrutinized.

"This tick I have here is a female adult," Barbalato said, while looking through a microscope.

Along with sophomore Amulya Makkapati, the two, working with a grant from the Lehigh Valley Health Network, are spending their summer conducting research.

"These are the glands that makes the spit that contains the bacteria that causes Lyme disease," Makkapati said, while looking at an enlarged computer monitor tick.

The goal is to map out Lyme disease in the Lehigh Valley. 

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 5758 cases of Lyme statewide. It's a disease that, if left untreated, can be debilitating.

Under the eye of Muhlenberg biology professor Marten Edwards and in the shadow of a checklist that would make any serious scientist salivate, the girls are putting in 40-hour weeks of research.

Their duties include taking collected ticks to the "tilt a whirl" from hell.

"It basically pulverizes the tick," Barbalato said of the machine.

Liquefying the tick allows DNA to be extracted, which is then tested.

"Any line showing up is positive for Lyme disease; anything negative indicated tick didn't have the bacteria," Barbalato said, while showing a graph with the data.

So, how prevalent is Lyme? About 25 percent of ticks collected have tested positive for the disease.

Edwards said the research is a first for the area.

"Very important to get baseline because things are changing. If we test two, three, 10 years, may have very different results," Edwards said.

As for Barbalato and Makkapati, it's work they hope pays off in keeping people healthy.

"I think it's important people are aware of it. People don't want to be cooped up inside in the summer, but just need to be smart about what you are doing," the girls said.

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