(CNN Money) – Scientists propose the radical evolutionary step of genetically engineering the white-footed mice of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket to rid the islands of Lyme disease.
The unpleasant bacterial infection can cause fever, fatigue, and rashes – reason enough to want it eradicated. But unnoticed, Lyme disease can be transmitted to the joints, heart and nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 300,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year.
People living off the coast of Massachusetts during their idyllic summer vacations are eager to get rid of the Scourge, because as many as 40% of the people who live on Nantucket are eventually suffering from Lyme disease, according to local health officials
"There are earthquakes on the west coast for natural disasters, the heartland has tornadoes, the south has hurricanes, and here in the northeast is our natural disaster, Lyme disease," said Kevin Esvelt in a field specializing in evolutionary and ecological engineering at the MIT Media Lab.
Everyone associates deer with Lyme disease, but the chain transmission begins when a growing tick bites a white-footed mouse that carries the Lyme bacteria. Eliminate Lyme from mice, and you've come a long way to solve the problem.
Enter mice against ticks, Esvelt's campaign to do just that by tinkering with the genetic code of the animals. "We want to immunize the local white-footed mice hereditary," said Esvelt. "The idea is that less infected ticks mean fewer infected children."
Some mice naturally develop immunity to Lyme, much as your body gains immunity when you catch a cold. But this immunity will not be passed on to the offspring without the help of science.
This is where Duane Wesemann, an immunologist at Harvard Brigham and Women's Hospital comes into play. Once he has isolated the genetic code for Lyme immunity, Wesemann can edit him into the genome of many more mice. These mice pass on immunity to their offspring. Raise a few hundred thousand of these mice, set them in the wilderness, wait a few generations and theoretically no mice with Lyme. "These mice are expected to be resistant to Lyme for decades, and that will result in fewer ticks getting infected, which will result in fewer people being infected," he said.
At this point, all this is theoretical. Although Wesemann works to isolate Lyme antibodies in wild mice, the release of laboratory-modified mice remains years away.
Oh, and no one has ever released a genetically modified mammal in the wild. This requires more than time. It will require a vote. The majority of the inhabitants of the two islands must agree to the plan.
Jason Bridges, a parent who owns the Handlebar Cafe on Nantucket, is open to the idea. Ticks and the diseases they carry are an acceptable risk for now, but "if it got worse, I'd say we're done for something."
Not everyone considers the interference in nature to be the best idea. "My worst fear is that we're going to make a modification that creates a whole chain of reactions in this environment," said Mika Against Ticks's herbalist and vocal critic Danika Conners. "No matter how much they test that, we do not know how that will affect the environment in five years, ten years, fifteen years, twenty years."
Esvelt understands such concerns, but he takes any reasoning that he plays God. "I can not see how a benevolent God wants us to suffer our children and let them die of diseases that we could prevent," he said.
Nevertheless, he is eager to lead this conversation and to consider the perspective of all. "I firmly believe that this type of community decision-making is the only ethical path," he said.
Esvelt and Wesemann plan to test their idea by releasing about 1
Nevertheless, one can not anticipate every possible result. But Esvelt believes that the benefits outweigh any risk. "It always costs nothing to do nothing, and we need technology to not only keep the world going, but to improve it," he said.
Although residents of the two islands approve the project, it still has to clear federal control from the Environmental Protection Agency and perhaps the Food and Drug Administration. That is, it could take at least eight years for the first genetically modified mouse to scurry through the seaweed.
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