Meet the research team whose goal is to investigate the spread of disease-carrying ticks and mosquitoes in Maine and the disease agents they carry. These investigators also develop new strategies for tick control, and based on this work, inform the public about their risk and how to prevent it.
Danielle Cosenza, BS
Danielle is working to establish a multiplex qPCR assay that will test for multiple vector-borne disease pathogens in individual ticks. This will allow our lab to quickly establish co-infection rates in certain tick populations of a given area. Danielle is also interested in researching possible hybridization between the invasive deer tick and other native tick species.
Susan Elias, MS, PhD
Dr. Elias completed her PhD in Earth and Climate Sciences at the University of Maine. Her major research interest include:
- Ecology of tick and mosquito vectors and emergent vector-borne disease agents (such as Borrelia, Babesia microti, Anaplasma phagocytophilum, Powassan virus, eastern equine encephalitis virus) as related to climate, hosts, habitat, and human behavior.
- Modeling environmental spatio-temporal disease risk using multivariate approaches.
- Disease risk communication through a One Health framework.
Elizabeth “Libby” F. Henderson, BS
Libby is interested in better understanding the environmental and ecological factors among disease vectors, hosts, and habitat. While at the Vector-borne Disease Lab, Libby has worked on vector ecology studies focusing on arboviral surveillance, the role of passerine birds as hosts for the deer tick, and the emergence of tick-borne disease on Maine’s offshore islands. Recently, she has been working on the detection of Jamestown Canyon virus, a rare but emerging virus, in mosquitoes collected throughout Maine.
Chuck Lubelczyk, BS, MPH
Charles Lubelczyk has worked on research in the spread of vector-borne diseases since the late-1990’s, while working worth with the MaineHealth Institute for Research in Scarborough, Maine. A native of New Hampshire, Chuck’s work has focused on interactions between ticks and mosquitoes and their host and habitat requirements, as well as integrated pest management (IPM) approaches to reducing exposure to vector-borne diseases.
He is currently working on projects relating to the surveillance of mosquito-borne viruses, like eastern equine encephalitis and Jamestown Canyon virus, in Maine and New Hampshire, the use of community-based strategies to control deer ticks ticks on Maine’s island communities, the role of migratory birds in the ecology of Lyme disease (right), and development of pesticide resistance in mosquito vectors. He currently resides on a farm with his wife Laura and three ungrateful cats in Maine’s midcoast.
Rebecca M. Robich, PhD
Dr. Robich is interested in better understanding how changes in the natural environment impact the transmission of vector-borne diseases to humans. Recent research focuses on mapping the geographic distribution of Powassan virus in Maine, which is transmitted by the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis. Her work also aims to determine whether or not Powassan virus is associated with environmental habitat type, including wildlife and plant species composition. The Vector-borne disease lab also researches mosquito-borne viruses, such as West Nile and eastern equine encephalitis.
Dr. Robich also aims to understand how disease vectors such as ticks and mosquitoes survive the harsh environmental conditions associated with summer and winter, both at a molecular and ecological level.
McMinn RJ et al. Phylodynamics of deer tick virus in North America. Virus Evolution , 2023; 9 (1): 1-8.
Vogel’s CB et al. Phylogeographic reconstruction of the emergence and spread of Powassan virus in the northeastern United States. PNAS 2023; 120: e2218012120.
Burke AE, Knoper K, Ling E, Smith RP, Taichman D, Telford ST. Perspective: Tickborne Diseases. Nejm (Double Take Video) 2023; 388; e43.
Mallow ski AC , Smith RP, MacQueen D, Mader E. Review of continuing medical education in tickborne disease for front line providers. PRiMER 2023; 7:7.
Haddad NS, Nozick S, Ohanian S, Smith R, Elias S, Auwaerter PG, Lee FE, Daiss JL. Circulating antibody-secreting cells are a biomarker for early diagnosis in patients with Lyme disease. PLoS One. 2023;18(11):e0293203.
Schneider EF, Robich RM, Elias SP, Lubelczyk CB, Cosenza DS, Smith RP. Jamestown Canyon virus from mosquitoes collected in Maine, USA, 2017-2019. accepted, Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2022; 28(11): 2330–2333.
Johnston D, Kelly J, Ledizet M,Lavoie N, Smith RP et al. Frequency and Geographic Distribution of Borrelia miyamotoi, Borrelia burgdorferi, Babesia microti infection in New England residents. Clinical Infect Dis 2022.
Smith RP , Editor. Lyme Disease and the Expanded Spectrum of Blacklegged Tick-Borne Infections. Infectious Disease Clinics of North America, Sept 2022. Elsevier Press, Cambridge MA.
Elias SP, Witham JW, Schneider EF, Rand PW, Hunter ML, Lubelczyk CB, Smith, RP. Emergence of Ixodes scapularis (Acari: Ixodidae) in a small mammal population in a coastal oak-pine forest, Maine, USA, Journal of Medical Entomology. 2022;59(2):725-740.
Mutebi JP, Mathewson AA, Elias SP, Robinson S, Graham AC, Casey P, Lubelczyk CB. Use of cervid serosurveys to monitor Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus activity in northern New England, United States, 2009-2017. Journal of Medical Entomology. 2022; 59(1):49-55.
Elias SP, Stone BB, Rand PW, Lubelczyk CB, and Smith RP, Jr. History of deer herd reduction for tick control on Maine’s offshore islands. Maine Policy Review. 2021:30. https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/mpr/vol30/iss1/1/
Shen R, McCarthy CM, Smith RP. Lyme carditis in hospitalized children and adults, a case series. Open Forum Infectious Diseases July 2021; 8: ofab140; doi.org/10.1093/ofid/ofab140.
Elias SP, Rand PW, Rickard LN, Stone BB, Maasch KA, Lubelczyk CB, Smith RP. 2021. Support for deer herd reduction on offshore Islands of Maine, U.S.A. Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases. 12(2) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ttbdis.2020.101634
National Institutes of Health R01 (subawards)
Powassan encephalitis virus in ticks and their hosts – Researchers are using ticks derived from wildlife hosts to look for sympatry among the two lineages of Powasan encephalitis virus, particularly those tick species and vertebrate hosts associated with Lineage I Powassan virus. Lineage I has, in recent years, been diffcult to detect in the environment, even though it is thought to be more clinically severe than Lineage II, also known as Deer Tick Virus.
Molecular analysis of tick blood meal source – Retrotransposons (“jumping genes”) are genetic elements that integrate into the genome. Tufts scientists developed a novel real-time PCR assay to target mammalian retrotransposons as a method to identify remnant blood meals in ticks. Our role is to send field-collected tick specimens to Tufts and as a PCR test validation laboratory for Tufts.
National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research (subaward)
Early Lyme disease diagnostic test – Antibody-secreting cells newly activated from precursor B-cells circulate in blood following antigenic stimulation by B. burgdorferi, the agent of Lyme disease. Antibody-secreting cells arise days earlier than detectable serum antibodies, the basis for all current Lyme diagnostics. A new diagnostic test will enable earlier diagnosis of Lyme disease.
Maine Center for Disease Control
Tick and Mosquito Surveillance – In an effort to monitor for the presence of mosquito-borne viruses (arboviruses), particularly West Nile virus, Eastern equine encephalitis virus, and Jamestown Canyon virus, investigators are working with partners across several counties in Maine to collect vector mosquito species and submit them for testing at the state Environmental Health and Testing Laboratory in Augusta.
Pesticide Resistance – Since 2016, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been interested in the ability of mosquito populations to develop resistance to licensed pesticides, which may, in turn, affect the ability of communities to control mosquito vectors during an outbreak of a mosquito-borne arbovirus (see above). To this end, we are collecting samples of the mosquito Culex pipiens, the primary vector of West Nile virus, to common pesticides used by licensed pesticide applicators in Maine. The data will help us determine how susceptible these mosquitoes are to pesticides across several counties in Maine.
Self-funded Pilot Projects
Diapause in ticks – Cessation of development and blood meal questing in Ixodes ticks is not well understood; our work will characterize how photoperiod, temperature, and humidity combine to control diapause in ticks, with implications for novel tick control.
Powassan hotspots – The theory of nidality (focality) of vector-borne infection holds that zoonotic pathogens are maintained through an ideal assemblage of vectors, hosts and habitat. Deer Tick virus (DTV) is a lineage of Powassan virus, is transmitted through the bite of an infected blacklegged (deer) ticks, and causes significant morbidity and mortality in humans. In an oak-pine forest in southern Maine, “hotspots” of DTV-infected ticks are associated with dense thickets of a thorny, invasive, non-native shrub, Japanese barberry, confirming the theory of nidality.
In 2020, MHIR’s Vector-Borne Disease (VBD) Lab began a partnership with Tufts University in the “Lyme Disease Initiative,” which promotes outstanding, interdisciplinary research in all aspects of Lyme disease, with the goal of eradicating Lyme disease as a rising human health problem by 2030. Tufts has an outstanding history of contributions to basic and clinical science regarding Lyme disease, and the MHIR VBD laboratory has worked collaboratively with their investigators for over two decades. One goal of the partnership is to have Maine lead the development of a clinical network for assessment of novel diagnostic tests, new treatments, and vaccine trials. A network that included Portland practices, Pen Bay Medical Center and Southern Maine Medical Center has recently completed a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Small Business Innovation Research study (with MicroBplex, Inc.) of an innovative diagnostic test for early disease. In addition, the MHIR VBD Laboratory continues its collaborative work on environmental research aimed at disease prevention, supported in part with NIH sub awards.
Learn more about the Lyme Disease Initiative