Mass spectrometry enhanced by nanotechnology can achieve previously unattainable sensitivity for characterizing urinary pathogen-derived peptides. We utilized mass spectrometry enhanced by affinity hydrogel particles (analytical sensitivity = 2.5 pg/mL) to study tick pathogen-specific proteins shed in the urine of patients with (1) erythema migrans rash and acute symptoms, (2) post treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), and (3) clinical suspicion of tick-borne illnesses (TBI). Targeted pathogens were Borrelia, Babesia, Anaplasma, Rickettsia, Ehrlichia, Bartonella, Francisella, Powassan virus, tick-borne encephalitis virus, and Colorado tick fever virus. Specificity was defined by 100% amino acid sequence identity with tick-borne pathogen proteins, evolutionary taxonomic verification for related pathogens, and no identity with human or other organisms. Using a cut off of two pathogen peptides, 9/10 acute Lyme Borreliosis patients resulted positive, while we identified zero false positive in 250 controls. Two or more pathogen peptides were identified in 40% of samples from PTLDS and TBI patients (categories 2 and 3 above, n = 59/148). Collectively, 279 distinct unique tick-borne pathogen derived peptides were identified. The number of pathogen specific peptides was directly correlated with presence or absence of symptoms reported by patients (ordinal regression pseudo-R2 = 0.392, p = 0.010). Enhanced mass spectrometry is a new tool for studying tick-borne pathogen infections.
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