Space & Innovation

Modifying Mouse Genes Could Fight Lyme Disease

A new gene-editing project wants to involve the community with open and transparent research phases.

When you think about Lyme disease, you probably think about ticks. But it turns out that mice are a main source of the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes the disease. In their larvae stage, the ticks feed on the mice, acquire the pathogen, grow big (relatively speaking) and strong, and then bite humans, passing along the disease.

Some people think that eradicating ticks is one way to fight this disease. But Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks genetically engineering mice could do the job.

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He presented his idea to the audience at the MIT-sponsored Forbidden Research symposium.

Esvelt, who developed several key technologies that use the RNA-guided CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique, has already taken his novel plan to the people of the Massachusetts islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. (On Nantucket, 40 percent of the 10,000 residents report having contracted Lyme disease, reports the New York Times.)

The idea is to alter the DNA of wild mice to give them capability of producing antibodies that would make them immune to the Lyme-causing pathogen. But Esvelt also spoke about involving the community of those two islands from the very beginning of the process.

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"We're working to ensure that all work is being done in the open," Esvelt told the audience at Forbidden Research. Research done in the open accelerates progress, he said.

He emphasized that his teams wants to do all of the research out in the open, that they want independent monitoring set up by the community to make sure that everything would go as planned, and that they want to build in points where the project stops unless community members give it explicit permission to proceed.

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According to WBUR reporter Carey Goldberg, the project will have three phases:

Phase 1: Release large numbers of white-footed mice that have the antibodies to fight against Lyme and/or ticks on a small uninhabited island that would be chosen by community members.

Phase 2: Based on the results, the project would move forward, as along as the community supported it. Mice would be released on Nantucket and/or Martha's Vineyard over a period of two years.

Phase 3: Release large numbers of mice on the mainland of Massachusetts.

After Esvelt presented his talk to the people on Martha's Vineyard, he said, 100 percent of those in attendance agreed to move forward.

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Esvelt's approach could represent a new paradigm for research that ultimately finds it way into the community. Instead of separating the research from public information, he and his team are wrapping the public into the discussion and even into the scientific monitoring.

"Trust is not a given," he told the audience at the Forbidden Research symposium, "It must earned each and every time."

Esvelt's talk begins at about the 1:24:00 mark.