Can Gene-Edited Mice in Nantucket Kill Lyme Disease?
Biotech researchers at MIT want to battle Lyme using CRISPR. What could go wrong?
This story is part of “Tickpocalypse,” a multi-part special report.
The island of Nantucket, the popular summer destination off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is home to about 11,000 people year-round — and millions of ticks.
When infected with a strain of bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, those ticks can transmit Lyme disease to humans. And Lyme, which can cause everything from fever and headaches to muscle pain and arthritis, symptoms that can linger for years if the disease isn’t treated in time, is on the rise. About 300,000 people are estimated to contract the disease every year in the United States, and that number is expected to skyrocket, driven by a dramatic increase in the tick population. On Nantucket and nearby Martha’s Vineyard, the incidence of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases is among the highest in the country.
“Approximately 50% of people who grew up here have had an acute Lyme episode at least once in their life,” says Roberto Santamaria, the director of the island’s health department.
To stop the spread of the disease, Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary biologist at MIT, is proposing an unorthodox approach: Lyme-resistant mice. In the lab, the team is using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to edit the genes of white-footed mice, the primary carriers of the Lyme bacterium, so that they can’t be infected in the first place.
In a series of public and town hall-style meetings beginning in 2016, Esvelt — who likes to refer to Lyme as the natural disaster of the Northeast — and his team have met with community members on Nantucket and then Martha’s Vineyard to present the idea and get feedback. The islands’ boards of health have given the green light for the project to move forward, but the communities will still have a final say in whether or not the resulting mice will be released there. For now, Esvelt’s team is figuring out how to engineer the mice and how many mice would need to be released to show that the approach works. They’re also considering two private islands for an initial field trial, which would need to be conducted even before the engineered…