As concerns about ticks and the potential diseases they carry grows in the Northeast and throughout the United States, a Portville native is conducting research to understand how tick-borne pathogens can attack our health.
Jeremy Bechelli, assistant professor of microbiology at Sam Houston State University of Huntsville, Texas, focuses in particular on Colorado tick fever virus and the spotted fever group Rickettsiae, which are caused by a bacterium. In his lab researchers are interested in how these pathogens damage the cells lining blood vessels — and how the body responds to these infectious agents.
“The goals for this particular microbiome study is to enhance our knowledge of the potential pathogens that people face when bitten by a tick,” Bechelli said. “Our other research focusing on Colorado tick fever virus is aimed at using existing antiviral drugs to enhance treatment during severe infections in children to treat encephalitis (brain infection) and discovering new treatment options for hemorrhagic symptoms of the disease.”
While the 1998 graduate of Portville Central School focuses primarily on ticks in Texas, during a May visit with his parents, Michael and Deborah Bechelli on Burnt Hill Road, he was struck by the abundance of ticks in the area here.
“I collected about 100 ticks in an hour and shipped them back to Texas where we extracted DNA from each tick to examine their microbiomes,” Bechelli said. “Basically, we are able to see all of the genetic material (DNA) from all of the microbes that live inside of the tick.”
He said microbiomes are typically composed of hundreds of microbial species and this technique allows researchers to examine both the normal bacteria, as well as pathogens that cause diseases — like Lyme and spotted fevers. From this data, researchers are able to see the overall distribution of pathogens in the area ticks were collected and helps to better inform the public and local physicians of the risks associated with tick bites.
“A recent study examined the microbiome of deer ticks from New York and Connecticut, but as far as I know, there are no published reports of tick microbiome studies from Western New York,” Bechelli said. “Their study showed bacteria that cause Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis and rickettsiosis. Currently, nobody is exactly sure what is present in the Olean area.”
Bechelli’s father, Michael, a retired employee of the Cattaraugus County Health Department, is concerned about the increase in tick numbers in the area — not least because Michael himself was bitten by a tick recently and was facing the prospect of antibiotic treatment against Lyme disease. A relative in the Duke Center, Pa. area has been afflicted by Lyme disease as well.
“My wife and I are constantly finding ticks on our dogs and cats, and they’re just going out in the backyard,” Michael said. “It’s really bad.”
Jeremy Bechelli was asked if his father’s and uncle’s experiences make him reflect on the personal side of tick-borne diseases while he seeks answers.
“It’s hard to be from Western New York and NOT know someone that has had, or currently has Lyme,” he said. “I think it’s important to recognize that millions of people suffer from tick-borne infections across the globe — that’s what keeps my lab going on a daily basis.”
Bechelli was asked if ticks are threatening to spread what could be seen as “the malaria of North America.”
“I am not sure I would say that, but it is well established that tick-borne diseases are on the rise and numbers of reported tickborne infections increases each year,” he said. “According to the CDC, in 2017, state and local health departments reported a record number of cases of tickborne disease to CDC, 59,349 cases, up from 48,610 in 2016. Tickborne diseases more than doubled from 2004 to 2016.”
Meanwhile, he said researchers are finding new diseases spread by ticks in the U.S., including the bourbon virus and heartland virus in the Midwest and southern U.S., discovered during the past decade.
Bechelli went to SUNY Brockport, majoring in biology, and graduated in 2002. He completed a master’s in microbiology and immunology from the University of Rochester in 2009 and graduated with a Ph.D. in infectious disease pathology from the University of Texas Medical Branch in 2016.
He taught for a time at the College of the Mainland, a small community college in Texas City, before being recruited to Sam Houston State for his current position.