Lyme Disease Fight is Personal for U of G Researcher, Alum

$1.4-Million Research Lab Honours Memory of Canadian Wine Industry Trailblazer

It took 20 years for Melanie Wills, B.Sc. ’09, PhD ’16, to get a diagnosis.

By then, Lyme disease had stolen much of her childhood and adolescence and had followed her to university.

Wills endured chronic pain, severe fatigue and gastrointestinal issues, thyroid and vision problems, and memory loss.

Her condition meant months in bed, prolonged absences from school, a stream of specialists and medical appointments, misdiagnoses and unhelpful treatments – year after year.

Dealing with the pain and suffering became a way of life. But Wills persevered and even excelled.

She came to U of G as a President’s Scholar. At graduation, she received the W.C. Winegard Medal — the University’s top undergraduate convocation award –and became the first B.Sc. graduate to move straight into the PhD program in molecular and cellular biology.

As an undergraduate working with Prof. Nina Jones, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Wills discovered overexpression of a signalling protein in brain tumours. That research breakthrough won her grants, research awards and accolades, and became the focus of her PhD work.

All the while, her sickness continued.

Halfway through her PhD — examining the signalling pathways among cells that can go awry and lead to cancer – Wills had a personal breakthrough. A doctor whom she had waited more than two years to see made the diagnosis all the others had missed.

As a researcher, she viewed her Lyme disease as the beginning of a new project.

“After I got the diagnosis, I was intrigued, so I began looking into the literature and fell down the rabbit hole,” she says. “The number of people suffering from it, the controversy in the medicalfield, the lack of confidence in testing, the potential of the organism to withstand antibiotics and remain in the body for such a long period of time – it all started coming out.”

Wills added the epidemiology of Lyme disease to her research roster, co-founding the Canadian Lyme Science Alliance.

Now, backed by a new $1.4-milion grant from the G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-Borne Diseases, she is working to help improve diagnostic testing and treatment.

She heads the G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab, named for Gabe Magnotta, co-founder of Magnotta Winery, who died in 2009 after a seven-year battle with Lyme disease. Rossana Magnotta created the foundation in 2012 in memory of her late husband, who was known as a trailblazer in the Canadian wine industry.

Wills hopes to identify biomarkers and prognostic indicators for Lyme disease, and uncover evidenced-based testing and treatment options. The lab will operate within the College of Biological Science.

She plans to work with other Lyme researchers and centres, develop a national collaborative network of scientists, clinicians and patients, and involve students in research.

Wills learned about Lyme disease for the first time as a U of G undergrad in a microbiology class. Viewing a slide image of a rash, she thought it resembled the one she developed on her leg when she was 10.

“I grew up in Lindsay, on the Kawartha Lakes, in a subdivision bordered by a field. There were deer, mice – all the reservoir species — so certainly the factors were there,” she said. “But it wasn’t really anyone’s fault that it was missed, it just didn’t register back then.”

After that day in class, Wills had asked a doctor for a test, but the result came back negative. She spent the next 10 years thinking Lyme disease was not a possibility.

She now knows that false negatives are common.

“Current tests are not reliable, particularly in the early stages of the disease,͟ she says. ͞They also cannot distinguish active infection from past exposure, so they can’t be used to evaluate treatment success.”

She hopes her research will lead to improved tests that diagnose the disease sooner, when the outcome is most favourable, and improved understanding of the disease.

“Patients are falling through the cracks left, right and centre.”

– Lori Bona Hunt