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Stopping Lyme disease by releasing hundreds of thousands of genetically-engineered mice?

… will only be used if approved by the community

This time of year the nefarious little insects known as ticks take over many areas of the country, and with them comes a fear of a disease that has become one of the most feared in the United States in recent years.

Lyme disease is also known scientifically as Lyme borrelisosis, and it is currently the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, according to scientists. In 2020, close to half a million people (476,000) were infected with the disease according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The problem is that the disease is so recent that medical science is not certain how to treat it. However, scientists in New England have devised a plan that is certain to be controversial, but one that could actually work.

What makes it controversial is that in order to remove the ticks, mice must be increased since they eat the ticks, but in this case, these little critters are genetically-altered.

The scientific plan

The Boston Globe outline how the plan would work in theory, acknowledging that this would only become reality if the people in the community approve it,

NANTUCKET — As spring emerged on this island of manicured estates and idyllic beaches, a group of scientists from the Boston area arrived on a recent afternoon with an extraordinary request for local officials: Let us release hordes of genetically altered mice into the wild. Hundreds of thousands of them, potentially.

The engineered rodents would look exactly like the native white-footed mice. But each of their cells would carry genetic code, specially tailored in an MIT lab, for resistance to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. White-footed mice are a key reservoir for the harmful bacteria.

Because mice breed so quickly and prolifically, the scientists are betting the genes of the new rodents would predominate soon after their release. The immunized mice, they hope, would curb the spread of Lyme, which has increased dramatically here in recent years and is now the most common infectious disease on the island.

If fewer mice carry Lyme, the scientists say, fewer ticks that bite them would become infected. That, in turn, would mean fewer ticks that bite humans would carry Lyme, which is becoming more prevalent throughout New England as a warming climate allows more ticks to survive winter.

David Abel, “In an effort to curb Lyme disease, scientists hope to release thousands of genetically altered mice on Nantucket,” Boston Globe, April 21, 2022

The scientists are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University, but even some scientists realize the dangers.

Dangers make this a hard sell to the public

The scientists realize the dangers inherent in such a proposal, so they have tried to limit them,

Given the potential consequences to the ecosystem from such genetic modifications, the team plans to make the fewest possible changes to the mice to minimize any unintended consequences, Buchtal said.

Rather than transplanting specially designed genetic code in the white-footed mice, which would be more efficient, they plan to insert specific Lyme-resistance genes from white-footed mice that have developed immunity to the disease through exposure to it.

White-footed mice that acquire Lyme immunity can’t pass it on to their descendants. But gene editing can make that immunity inheritable. So the altered mice, if all goes well, would pass that immunity to their descendants, eventually replacing all the mice susceptible to the pathogen.

David Abel, Boston Globe, April 21, 2022

Some realize the danger but are open to the idea because of the health consequences of Lyme disease,

“This is scary technology,” said Allison Snow, an ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies ticks and also attended the meeting. “There’s still so much they don’t know.”

Yet most of those who listened to the scientists, including Snow, said they’re keeping an open mind.

David Abel, Boston Globe, April 21, 2022

The nasty ticks

I have written about ticks previously, and fortunately for me, the ones with which I have had experience have been of the wood variety, which are not a serious as the others.

However, the dangers on Nantucket are changing the minds of people,

Between 2009 and 2018, tick-borne illnesses accounted for more than 90 percent of all infectious diseases diagnosed on the island, according to a study by the Nantucket Health & Human Services Department.

“There’s a plague of Lyme disease on the island, and that’s why I support this proposal,” said Roberto J. Santamaría, director of the Nantucket Health & Human Services Department. “Lyme has reached a critical point, and the worst thing we can do is nothing.”

He worried it would get worse as climate change accelerates. “The warmer it gets, the more active the ticks are, and the more people they bite,” he said.

David Abel, Boston Globe, April 21, 2022

Fortunately for me, although I returned from a walk a few years ago with 15 on my body, they did not provide the danger of Lyme disease.

Nevertheless, they are still creepy, especially when you wake up with one on your neck in the middle of the night.

Will the community approve this?

The fear may be changing ideas, but for this to be approved, the scientists will have to confront many potential hurdles,

Their first-of-its-kind proposal would require significant vetting by local, state, and federal regulators, such as the Food and Drug Administration. It will also require support from residents here and on Martha’s Vineyard, where the scientists also hope to release hundreds of thousands of engineered mice.

Getting that support remains far from certain, given deep-seated concerns about genetically modified organisms.

As part of that effort, the scientists this month held a public meeting on Nantucket to explain their plans and seek feedback.

Addressing scores of residents gathered at a restaurant in the historic district, Esvelt began with a promise that the project would only proceed if residents approve it. “If at any time the community says nope, we’re not interested,” he said, “then we walk away.”

The team’s larger goal, he said, is to demonstrate how to go about such controversial experiments with as much transparency and community guidance as possible.

David Abel, Boston Globe, April 21, 2022

The reality is that this proposal will probably never become reality. It is one fear facing another, and that usually results in a deadlock.

If Lyme disease continues to be problematic for so many people, that could change.

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