Researchers say a common coffee sweetener could be the ingredient to help cure Lyme disease

WEST HAVEN (WTIC) -- With a reported increase in ticks, concern is growing for Lyme and other tick borne diseases, but researchers may be one step closer to a cure.

Dr. Eva Sapi, Chairwoman of the Department of Biology and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven believes the sweetener, Stevia, may be the ingredient for a cure.

As Director of Lyme Disease Research at UNH, Sapi and a group of students have been testing the sugar substitute against the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi.

RELATED: Photos of Lyme Disease

Lyme disease
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Lyme disease

Be proactive

  • Avoid tick bites, especially in areas known to harbor deer ticks.
  • Stay out of wooded areas or areas with high grasses
  • When hiking, stick to the trail
  • Cover as much skin as possible, with loose breathable clothing
  • Repel ticks with DEET or permethrin. Use according to directions. Adults should apply on children to avoid ingestion or inhalation.For more information on insect repellants, visit the EPA guide

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Check for ticks

  • Infected ticks have to be attached to the skin for 36-48 hours
  • After coming in from the outdoors, check yourself and your kids
  • Black legged ticks can be as small as a poppy seed, so the search has to be very thorough
  • Look in hard to see areas, like the groin, scalp and armpits
  • Pets cannot transmit disease, but they can bring ticks inside the home. Check them as well.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Look for symptoms
Symptoms of early Lyme disease usually appear within 3 – 30 days after infection and include:

  • Red, expanding bulls-eye rash starting at the site of the bite
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and chills
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes

70-80% of patients will get the trademark Erythema Migrans rash.  Because symptoms are vague, being vigilant and aware is key to getting timely treatment

(Photo credit: Getty) 

Seek medical help

  • If you suspect you have Lyme disease, see your doctor immediately.
  • Diagnosis is best made by history and symptoms.
  • Blood tests can be a useful adjunct in some cases.
  • If untreated, the following symptoms can occur:
    • Rash on other parts of the body
    • Bell's palsy – paralysis of the facial muscles
    • Meningitis symptoms including headaches and neck stiffness
    • Large joint pain
    • Heart Palpitations and dizziness

(Photo credit: Alamy)


The group tested the effectiveness of Stevia in fighting Borrelia burgdorferi compared to several antibiotics, including doxycycline, cefoperazone, daptomycin, and even combinations.

In a research paper published in the European Journal of Microbiology and Immunology, the group outlines that the liquid form of whole-leaf stevia extract has found the most success in preventing the Lyme causing bacteria.

Sapi was in the process of cancer research when she was diagnosed with Lyme disease. As a researcher, she said her natural instinct was to try and find out more.

SEE MORE: Symptoms of Lyme disease

Symptoms of lyme disease
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Symptoms of lyme disease
The pathognomonic erythematous rash in the pattern of a bullseye, which manifested at the site of a tick bite on a woman's posterior right upper arm.
Knee pain
Neck pain 
Night sweats
Joint pain
Difficulty sleeping

"I was terrified to learn that not much is known about what is really working for this disease," she said. " That was my goal, I was on a mission, I mean when I recovered I promised myself that we find something."

She said she came across research that revealed sugar was used with antibiotics to kill Ecoli, so she decided to try every sugar substance she could come across on Borrelia, finding Stevia to be most effective.

Sapi believes the Barellia is mistaking Stevia for food and is taking it in, which is in turn, killing it.

"I don't know if we'll find a cure but something is really working," Dr. Sapi said. "Just because it works in a test tube doesn't mean its going to work in a human body so we didn't stop."

The method is now going to clinical trial on patients of Dr. Richard Horowitz in Hyde Park, New York, to test its effectiveness. In the meantime, the group at UNH is continuing the research in the West Haven based lab with the plan to test on Zebrafish.

"The nice thing about Zebrafish is their immune systems are relatively similar to us," UNH graduate student Michael Oldakowski said.

Related: Tips to avoid ticks

How to avoid tick bites
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How to avoid tick bites

1. Stay in the middle of the path

When hiking, make sure to stay in the middle of the path. Weeds, grass and trees make it easier for ticks to crawl onto you. Don't venture out to the grass or bushes, where ticks are formidable to be hiding. 

2. Wear long pants and closed toed shoes

Protect your skin. Adding an extra layer makes it more difficult to latch on to you. It's smart to wear pants, long sleeves and hats, especially in the summer.

3. Invest in deer-resistant plants. 

Since ticks feed on and are transported by deer, try looking into deer-resistant plants. French marigolds, rosemary, mint and crape myrtle are just some of the greens deer tend to "overlook". 

See a complete list of the herbs and flowers here

4. Check your dog! 

Dogs can literally bring ticks right to your front door. Prevent ticks by keeping their coats short in the summer. Use your hands to check the fur, stopping if you feel a pea-sized bump. Favorite spots ticks like to hide include the ears, toes and under the tail. 

Dog ticks don't "harbor diseases that sicken people", but you should still be wary. 

5. Yes, repellant can help. 

According to TickenEncounter, spray with DEET does not provide "sufficient" protection. Get spray for your clothes like Permethrin, which instantly kills ticks. 

6. Dry your clothes 

The CDC recommends tumble drying clothes immediately for ten minutes after you've been outside. Ticks can easily "dry out" with high heat, but you should make sure the clothes are completely dry. 

Warning: Ticks can survive the wash. 

7. Tuck your pants into your socks.

This covers the small, easily accessible space in between your pants and ankles. Especially if you are sitting, it makes it easier for ticks to latch on. 

8. Stay in the sun.

Since ticks survive in shady, humid environments, researchers agree that staying in the sun lowers the risk for ticks. According to LiveScience, ticks "can't survive" in places with lower than 80% humidity. 

9. Invest in Permethrin socks

The chemical is successful in protecting against ticks, mosquitoes and other types of bites. estimates that permethrin-treated footwear offered 74 times the protection from bites.

10. Mow your lawn

Cut your grass, clean your yard, get rid of any extra firewood or wood chips. 


He said the plan is to inject the Lyme disease causing bacteria into the fish embryos and then test the different antibiotics, including Stevia, on the fish.

Since published in 2015, Dr. Sapi said the group is continuing research and still finds Stevia as the best method to fight the bacteria. She said the group has also yielded positive results from bee venom; however, she doesn't find it to be as safe as the sugar substitute.

"We believe that nature put Borrelia on this planet and nature will provide a solution for it too," Dr. Sapi said.

Using a CDC estimate, The Department of Health reports about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease in Connecticut every year.

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