Live ticks wanted by Salt Spring researcher

Ticks will be used to study engorgement mechanism

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A Salt Spring Island-based researcher is looking for ticks this season.

Dr. Reuben Kaufman from the University of Alberta needs tick specimens to aid in his ongoing research.

Kaufman, who has work space in the Gulf Island Veterinary Clinic, is offering to remove ticks from island pets to use in his study of the elasticity of tick cuticles during feeding.  While Kaufman’s interest in ticks is purely scientific, he recognizes that his work can have a further reach into the prevention of tick-borne diseases.

If others could find out what kinds of drugs might inhibit the process, the ticks wouldn’t be able to feed and expand,” Kaufman said. “If they can’t feed and expand, they can’t secrete saliva and therefore they can’t transmit the diseases associated with them.”

Kaufman has been studying ticks since taking his Ph.D. in the 1960s. He has a background in insect physiology and has worked with blood suckers for most of his career. This project has been underway since going on sabbatical leave at the University of Bath in 2007. He continued his research during his time at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, working with mechanical engineering professor Peter Flynn before retiring to Salt Spring Island. Since 2012 he has collected over 1,200 ticks from Salt Spring pets and humans.

By testing the plasticity of the tick’s skin, he hopes to discover ways to inhibit the cuticle growth and prevent ticks from feeding. The outer shell of a tick functions as a skeleton, but also expands to around 100 times their original size during feeding. Only female ticks feed on hemoglobin.

“The increase in size is equivalent to a small human growing to a large elephant in six or seven days,” said Kaufman.

By researching this process, Kaufman hopes a drug can be synthesized that will stop the expansion of the skin and prevent the tick from feeding in the first place. His research involves cutting a loop in the tick’s outer skin and applying a force to that loop in order to measure its elasticity and plasticity.

Salt Spring Island is home to the Ixodes pacificus tick, commonly known as the western black legged tick, which is one of a few tick species known to carry Lyme disease. Lyme disease is an inflammatory infection that spreads through tick bites. According to  the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, Lyme disease is passed to humans from ticks that have bitten other animals carrying the bacteria. Lyme disease is treatable, but it becomes harder to treat the longer symptoms continue. The foundation recommends immediate medical treatment if Lyme disease is suspected.

Kaufman is looking for as many specimens as possible to continue his research. He takes both male and female ticks from animals and humans. His research is on the female tick, but other ticks will be passed on to other researchers in the field.

Tick season begins in October, peaks in February and is over by July.

Kaufman can be reached at rkaufman@ualberta.ca or 250-931-0033.

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