News | May 24, 2017

A Naval officer’s clever invention has turned the battle with brawny ticks upside down

A small Washington company is ready to stick it to ‘em

News Article Image of A Naval officer’s clever invention has turned the battle with brawny ticks upside down

Medical technicians conduct a tick drag at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on July 13, 2016. Tick drags are a technique that public health specialists use to survey the insects in their local areas. (Ohio Air National Guard/AFC Rachel Simones)

While dragging a white sheet through the woods, Navy Lt. Matthew Yans had often contemplated a better way to collect ticks.

An estimated 300,000 Americans get Lyme disease from ticks every year, according to the Center for Disease Control. And experts are predicting 2017 to be a bumper year for the U.S. tick population, fanning fears of other tick-borne disease.

Dragging has been the primary method of collecting ticks for decades, allowing scientists like Yans to learn what diseases they’re carrying and where. But it’s easy to see why researchers don’t like it.

“You have to walk through the environment first. And it only collects the ticks that happen to be right then looking for a host,” Yans said.

Alternatively, ticks can be baited onto the sheet with dry ice, which emits the CO2 they are attracted to, helpfully explained in the 1989 Air Force report “Ticks and Tickborne Diseases Affecting Military Personnel.” But dry ice needs special storage and quickly sublimates into gas.

To improve tick studies, entomologists have looked to adhesive traps, which use double-sided carpet tape. But the tape gets cluttered with debris, dries out, and won’t work on all ticks.

“They spend their life hanging on to a piece of vegetation and when a host comes by they jump on and scurry up and dig in,” said Mike Banfield, founder and president of SpringStar, a pest control company near Seattle.  “Going onto the sticky tape some of them are strong enough to extract themselves off of that.”

In 2014, while assigned to the Navy’s Entomology Center of Excellence in Florida, Yans tried flipping the tape upside down.

In a trio of four-hour field tests at the Florida National Guard’s Camp Blanding, Yans’ prototype traps caught 3,000 ticks per test, which beat the other traps by 1,000 ticks.

News Article Image of A Naval officer’s clever invention has turned the battle with brawny ticks upside down

Plus, “It’s a set-and-forget trap,” said Yans. “You don’t have to monitor it.”

This will help Yans keep American forces and civilians safe from tick-borne diseases at home and abroad, but it also created an opportunity.

Last month, SpringStar secured exclusive rights to manufacture the new trap, which the Navy patented in 2015.

“We took one look at that and said ‘that’s not a tick trap. That’s a way to catch all sorts of species,” Banfield said. Ants, beetles, and brown marmorated stink bugs, which are a major agricultural pest in the United States, can also power through sticky traps.

SpringStar has already commercialized the U.S. Army’s patented lethal ovitrap, and sells it in 1,800 Home Depot stores as the Mosquito Trap-N-Kill. They’ll do the same with the tick trap after more testing, Banfield said.

TechLink, a Montana-based Department of Defense affiliate that specializes in transferring military technology to small companies, helped SpringStar navigate the licensing process.

But this particular patent license has a novel component, which protects taxpayers.

“We negotiated a term in the license that says sales to the U.S. government will be at a price no higher than the lowest private sector sales,” said Todd Ponzio, director of the Office of Partnerships and Business Development at the Naval Medical Research Center.

“The provision is in all our recent licenses, and it speaks highly of SpringStar that they readily agreed, as it can sometimes be a challenge,” Ponzio said.

Troy Carter can be reached at troy.carter@montana.edu or 406-994-7798.

Headshot Image of Quinton King, PhD, CLP

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