Scientist proposes genetic attack on Martha’s Vineyard ticks

MIT associate professor Kevin Esvelt will seek support from Island health officials and the public for a strategy that targets the white-footed mouse.

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MIT professor Kevin Esvelt - MIT Media Lab

Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor Kevin Esvelt will outline a pilot program he hopes to conduct on Martha’s Vineyard that is intended to radically reduce the incidences of tick borne disease infection by gradually introducing genetically altered mice into the Island population. The white-footed mouse is an important link in the tick life cycle.

Professor Esvelt will describe his proposal to the public at 1 pm, Wednesday, July 20, at the Edgartown library. He will meet earlier in the day with members of the Island’s boards of health.

Ticks are not born with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme disease. They most often acquire it during their first blood meal when they feed on white-footed mice, the major reservoir for the bacteria.

“We envision permanently breaking the transmission cycle between white-footed mice and ticks in order to dramatically reduce the number of infected ticks and therefore diminish the number of human infections,” Mr. Esvelt said in a press release.

“We propose genetically altering mice to be immune to the Lyme-causing pathogen (or to a protein in the tick’s saliva, or both) by encoding protective, ‘100 percent mouse’ antibodies in their genomes,” Mr. Esvelt said in a press release. “We could then release a large number of these genetically altered mice on an island like Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard to breed with the native mouse population, introduce immunity and break the cycle of transmission. Our project is entirely geared towards the local communities that would benefit most. We propose a transparent, cautious and stepwise solution that will be regulated by federal and state government and guided by the local community.”

The plan is to vaccinate a large number of mice against Lyme or tick saliva, identify the most protective antibodies, and then encode them into the reproductive cells of other mice.

Sam R. Telford III, professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and Linden Hu, professor at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University are also part of the research team.

Mr. Esvelt heads the Sculpting Evolution research group at MIT.

His research focuses on evolutionary approaches to the engineering of ecosystems to find new ways to control vector-borne and parasitic diseases, as well as agricultural pests and environmentally damaging invasive species.

“We have only just begun our lab work because we believe that it is crucial to engage communities before any work is done,” he said in a press release. “Science typically lacks transparency, but given the increasing power of technology to unilaterally alter the shared environment, we believe that a new, open, community-driven model is both morally and practically imperative.”

In June, Mr. Esvelt presented his ideas to Nantucketers to a generally cautious but positive reception, according to a report in STAT, a medical journal.