Whether Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, can persist for long periods in the human body has been a controversial question. The objective of this study was to see if we could find B. burgdorferi in a Lyme disease patient after a long clinical course and after long-term antibiotic treatment. Therefore, we investigated the potential presence of B. burgdorferi antigens and DNA in human autopsy tissues from a well-documented serum-, PCR-, and culture-positive Lyme disease patient, a 53-year-old female from northern Westchester County in the lower Hudson Valley Region of New York State, who had received extensive antibiotic treatments during extensive antibiotic treatments over the course of her 16-year-long illness. We also asked what form the organism might take, with special interest in the recently found antibiotic-resistant aggregate form, biofilm. We also examined the host tissues for the presence of inflammatory markers such as CD3+ T lymphocytes. Autopsy tissue sections of the brain, heart, kidney, and liver were analyzed by histological and immunohistochemical methods (IHC), confocal microscopy, fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH), polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and whole-genome sequencing (WGS)/metagenomics. We found significant pathological changes, including borrelial spirochetal clusters, in all of the organs using IHC combined with confocal microscopy. The aggregates contained a well-established biofilm marker, alginate, on their surfaces, suggesting they are true biofilm. We found B. burgdorferi DNA by FISH, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and an independent verification by WGS/metagenomics, which resulted in the detection of B. burgdorferi sensu stricto specific DNA sequences. IHC analyses showed significant numbers of infiltrating CD3+ T lymphocytes present next to B. burgdorferi biofilms. In summary, we provide several lines of evidence that suggest that B. burgdorferi can persist in the human body, not only in the spirochetal but also in the antibiotic-resistant biofilm form, even after long-term antibiotic treatment. The presence of infiltrating lymphocytes in the vicinity of B. burgdorferi biofilms suggests that the organism in biofilm form might trigger chronic inflammation.
Keywords: Borrelia burgdorferi; Lyme disease; antibiotic resistance; biofilms; persisters; spirochete.