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What Makes Him Tick

What Makes Him TickThrough his research into in tick-borne infections and illnesses, Tufts' Sam Telford hopes to help relieve the public health burden posed by outbreaks of infections like Lyme disease and tularemia.

No. Grafton, Mass. [09.04.07] Scientific research runs in his blood. As a boy, Sam Telford III was captivated by his father's work as a protozoologist for the World Health Organization. Now, the associate professor of biomedical sciences applies what he learned working in the field trapping animals with his father to his research into tick-borne diseases and illnesses at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts.

By seeking to identify the mode of perpetuation of tick-borne infections like Lyme disease, tularemia, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and deer tick virus, Telford says he hopes to discover interventions that may help reduce human risk. He adds that the New England area, which is heavily ridden with ticks, is fertile ground for his research.

Tufts E-News recently talked with Telford about the foundation of his career, his current research and his plans for the future.

Q: Did you always know that you wanted to study zoonotic diseases?

Telford: No, I didn't. When I attended Johns Hopkins University as an undergrad, the school's focus was molecular and cell biology.(Fifty years earlier, its center for zoology was at the height of its reputation.) So when I got there and discovered it was all about molecular and cell biology, I switched over to the earth and planetary sciences department and received my B.A. in vertebrate paleontology.

Q: What sparked your interest in tick-borne diseases?

Telford: It's all about being in the right place at the right time. In 1984, when I was a grad student at Harvard, Lyme disease was a brand new infection. Its etiology had just been determined.Harvard was doing Lyme disease research and needed an animal trapper;I had the experience and so I worked as one (and so, all fell into place.)

Initially, I wanted to study zoology, but found that graduate students in that field were graduating from the top school for the subject in the country and having a hard time finding work. I'm glad I made the switch, because I originally intended to complete graduate research and work on reptiles and their evolution. For all I know, I could be driving a taxi cab right now.

Q: Was anyone influential in your decision to pursue studies in science, specifically public health?

Telford: My father, Sam Telford, Jr., worked with the World Health Organization as a protozoologist all over the world and sometimes, instead of going to school, I would go out to the field with him, trap animals. Oddly enough, though, I was into reptiles and I wanted to do graduate work on their evolution. But that's when I stumbled into the lab at Harvard looking for [a job as] a mammal trapper. As a grad student going to the tropical medicine meetings, older scientists who knew my dad would tell me that they remember me when I was just a little boy. Having them remember me as my father's son was encouraging.

Q: What questions are you trying to answer through your research?

Telford: I'm a mammalogist, I'm interested in what causespopulations of small mammals to increase and decrease and the effects that parasitic infections have on these processes. I've also been involved for a long time in trying to answer what kind
of public health burden New England has due to vector, particularly tick, related diseases. I specialize in those diseases that require an arthropod such as a tick or mosquito to get the disease from animals to humans.

Q: Where do you conduct your field work?

Telford: Well, I've been working on Nantucket ever since I started as a grad student at Harvard in 1984. In 1994, I started working on Block Island setting up the SmithKline Beecham Phase II Vaccine Trial for Lyme disease, and we got an angry call from a Martha's Vineyard resident, demanding to know why we weren't having the trial on the island, where Lyme disease was very much a problem. And the answer was because no one had invited us and furthermore, no one had space for us to put a sleeping bag on Martha's Vineyard.

For some time we would go and camp out on the Vineyard for two or three nights a month. For the longest time, we were putting our sleeping bags on the floor of a condemned building on the island, waking up and brushing away the spiders and taking showers with a hose. When I tell people that I do a lot of my field work on the islands, they'll say, 'Oh, luxury work...,' but it's really not.

Q: What does fieldwork entail and when are you most busy?

Telford: In the field, we collect ticks, and trap animals to determine their exposure to infection. August through September is the down point for tick fieldwork because it's the down point in their lifecycle. In April to July, I can be out at least a week a month in the field.

Q: What animals do you trap and for what types of studies are they trapped?

Telford: I currently study various aspects of the ecology and epidemiology of Lyme disease, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and tularemia. These infections are transmitted by ticks, and thus I need to examine the animals that the ticks normally feed on: white footed mice and deer for deer ticks, which transmit the first three-and the same mice as well
as skunks and raccoons for dog ticks, which transmit tularemia. So, I trap everything from mice to raccoons.

Q: Does New England have a more serious tick problem than other parts of the country?

Telford: Oh yeah, I never thought there would be such a disease burden. I grew up in the tropics, [where] there are ticks, but here in New England, it's certainly something communities worry about. Eighty to 90 percent of all Lyme disease cases come from New England;10 to 15 percent of tularemia cases are on Martha's Vineyard.

Q: What ticks do you uncover most frequently? Which diseases do they transmit? They all have some level of risk, but which have the greatest risk?

Telford: Generally, around this area, there are two types of ticks-dog ticks and deer ticks. Deer ticks are the primary carriers of Lyme disease. Recently I've been working more with dog ticks on the islands. Ticks can transmit many diseases. And even though tularemia kills about 7 percent and ehrlichiosis and babesiosis kill about 5 percent of the people they infect, they're rare. Lyme disease affects five to 10 times as many people. The greatest risk would be the most prevalent disease. Eight to 15 percent of the people on the islands have been exposed to Lyme disease. Each year there are 100 to 150 people diagnosed with Lyme disease on Nantucket and the same on Martha's Vineyard. About 2,000 cases are reported each year across Massachusetts.

Q: What precautions can be taken to prevent infection?

Telford: The precautions are simple, easy and relatively free. Wear light clothing, long sleeves and pants. Use bug repellent. After you come inside, do a total body tick check. Make sure there's nothing on you. When you want to be really cautious, you can always tuck your pant legs into long socks. If there's anything unusual, see a doctor. If you have an inexplicable fever in the summer, bring that to the attention of a doctor.

I've been working with these diseases for years, and I'm disease-free. I might get a few bites a year, but the never stay on for longer than a few hours-and that's not enough time for them to do damage. Ticks need to feed at least 24 hours before they can transmit the pathogens that cause Lyme disease, babesiosis, or ehrlichiosis.

We do not have any evidence that men or women differ in the susceptibility, but there are differences in exposure, that is, men are more likely to be bitten because they tend to be in occupations that place them outdoors. As for certain individuals being more 'ticky'-anecdotally that seems to be the case-but an actual study has not been done.

Q: What do you like best about being at Tufts?

Telford: The students-they are the cream of the crop. I also get to satiate my curiosities on small mammals and how they relate to human populations. I get to do research and talk to the public about Lyme disease and tick-borne disease intervention. I like seeing my work help other people. I wear the public health hat and I'm happy to talk to groups of people on what they can do to reduce the risk of getting a tick-transmitted disease. It's applied biology-we try to take what we learn and apply it to a problem, in this case, to better prevent infections.

Interview by Mary Jo Pham (A'11)

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