Scientists propose the radical evolutionary step of genetically engineering the white-footed mice of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket to make the islands of Lyme disease To liberate Lyme disease.
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People living off the coast of Massachusetts during their idyllic summer vacations are eager to get rid of the scourge, with as many as 40% of the people living on Nantucket eventually become infected with Lyme disease been local health department.
"On the West Coast, when it comes to natural disasters, they have earthquakes, the heartland has tornadoes, the south has hurricanes, and here in the northeast our natural disaster is Lyme disease," said Kevin Esvelt, referring to an area called evolutionary and ecological technology at the MIT Media Lab.
Everyone associates deer with Lyme disease, but the chain of transmission begins when a growing tick bites a white-footed mouse that carries the Lyme bacteria. Eliminate Lyme from mice and you have gone a long way to solving the problem.
Enter mice against ticks, Esvelt's campaign to do just that by tinkering with the genetic code of animals. "We want to immunize the local white-footed mice hereditary," said Esvelt. "The idea is less infected ticks means less infected kids."
Some mice naturally develop immunity to Lyme, just as your body gains immunity when you catch a cold. But this immunity is not passed on to the offspring without the help of science.
That's when Duane Wesemann, an immunologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Harvard, comes into play. Once he has isolated the genetic code for Lyme immunity, Wesemann can incorporate it into the genome of many other 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, it's all theoretical. Although Wesemann works on the isolation of Lyme antibodies in wild mice, the release of laboratory-modified mice remains years.
Oh, and no one has ever released a genetically modified mammal in the wild. This requires more than time. It will require a vote. A majority of the inhabitants of the two islands must approve the plan.
Jason Bridges, a parent who owns the Lenker Cafe on Nantucket, is open to the idea. Ticks and the diseases they carry are an acceptable risk for now, he says, but "if it got worse, I'd say we're done for something."
Not everyone considers a meddling in nature for 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 is sympathetic to such concerns, but he makes an exception to any argument that he plays God. "I can not see how a benevolent God wants us to make our children suffer and die from diseases that we could prevent," he said.
Nevertheless, he is eager to lead this conversation and to consider the perspective of all. "I strongly believe that this kind of decision-making in society is the only ethical path into the future," he said.
Esvelt and Wesemann plan to test their idea by releasing about 1,000 genetically modified mice on an uninhabited private island and seeing what happens. Wesemann likened it to preparing NASA for a mission. "They'll send something in space, and then they will not be able to retrieve it," he said. "All preparation and modeling must take place beforehand."
Nevertheless, one can not anticipate every possible outcome. 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.
Even if the residents of the two islands approve the project, they still need to be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency and perhaps the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). All in all, it could take at least eight years for the first genetically modified mouse to scurry through the seaweed.
CNNMoney (Nantucket, MA) First published on July 27, 2018: 5:30 pm ET