Will CRISPR mice stymie Lyme?

Scientists offer Islanders an unprecedented solution to borrelia epidemic.

Left to right: Dr. Duane Wesemann, Sheila Jasanoff, Sam Telford, Carolyn Neuhaus, and Kevin Esvelt. Michael Spector at the podium. —Rich Saltzberg

Updated July 18 at 4:25 pm

With Martha’s Vineyard Community Television and Netflix cameras rolling at the Katharine Cornell Theater last Thursday night, Islanders took in a presentation about how genetic manipulation of mice could wither Lyme disease on the Vineyard.  Joined by fellow scientists Sam Telford, a Tufts tick expert, and Dr. Duane Wesemann, a researcher from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, MIT researcher Kevin Esvelt explained the Mice Against Ticks project is envisioned for both Nantucket and the Vineyard, but the plan remains in an evaluation stage. Esvelt was also joined Sheila Jasanoff, a bioethicist from Harvard’s Kennedy School and Carolyn Neuhaus, a bioethicist from The Hastings Center, who both offered philosophical and historical perspectives to the proceedings.

For Vineyard residents, Esvelt stressed their input was an essential ingredient in determining whether his team should and would move forward with the project. While Vineyarders are well-versed about the high incidence of Lyme on-Island, he noted the disease amounted to a national plague—“the most common vector-borne illness in the United States.”

Mice are the target, he said because they infect tick larva (upon their first blood meal) with the bacteria responsible for Lyme; though “John Oliver has a different theory,” Esvelt said. On a recent segment of Last Week Tonight, Oliver joked Lyme gets between mice and ticks through Tinder hook-ups. “[T]he idea is to immunize the local wild white-footed mice population in order to prevent the spread of the disease,” Esvelt said.

Telford, who fielded several panel questions from the audience and New Yorker writer Michael Spector, the event’s emcee, later told The Times white-footed mice are the primary vector for Lyme disease on-Island because they are the most numerous small mammal on the Vineyard, and because unlike in chipmunks and voles, when white-footed mice are bitten by deer ticks, an allergic reaction isn’t triggered. That the ticks tend to target the mice faces and ears, where they can’t reach, compounds the problem, he said. Mice do groom out the ticks but too often they don’t realize they’ve been bitten, he said.  

Howard Ginsberg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who did not participate in the event, told The Times the mice will also sometimes eat ticks but typically when they’re engorged, not flat and unfed.

Dr. Wesemann explained to the audience that by manipulating genes in white-footed mice, the Mice Against Ticks team aimed to permanently vaccinate the rodents against borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme bacteria, through clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) techniques. CRISPR work would perpetuate an elevated level of antibodies to the bacteria in the mice.

Specter said while he didn’t want to get “Jurassic Parky” he nevertheless wanted to ask whether it was conceivable that the mice might later adapt in such a way that they don’t get infected but still carry borrelia and can pass it to ticks.

Dr. Wesemann responded by suggesting Mice Against Ticks could be a process, not a one off genetic application, and therefore compensate for such a variable.

“Because if we could replace mice once on an island, we could replace them again,“ he said, “or at least infuse [them] with a new product…”

“It’s not like developing a new medicine, Esvelt said of the project overall. “We develop a new medicine, your doctor recommends it to you, you can say no. You can opt out. But this is an environmental change.”

Jasanoff pointed out pitching advancements directly isn’t a novel concept but consideration must be given to allowing a momentous decision to be decided by referendum, absent of government involvement.

“It is not new — public engagement around technological engagements. It is not new if scientists go and talk to the public directly and expect that public engagement will tell them what to do with their technologies,” she said.

Jasanoff went on to say, “We have public bodies that weigh risks and benefits, costs and uncertainties.” She noted direct engagement “bypasses” government “machinery” tailored to address such issues.

Conversely, Jasanoff argued how or how not to implement new technology isn’t so much properly adjudicated by government but by collective values.

“I am skeptical about my own ability to use new technology..,” Esvelt confessed. “I am skeptical of our ability to use new technologies wisely but at the same time I don’t know how we could possibility do without them…Our current civilization is not sustainable absent continued advances. Can we make wise decisions? Are there some technologies where we really should keep that lid closed? Personally I suspect that there are…”

Reached both by telephone and email after the discussion, Neuhaus floated the term crowdsourcing to describe the input gathering methodology of the Mice Against Ticks team.

The scientific team behind Mice Against Ticks “knows they don’t know everything,” she wrote —  “idiosyncrasies of the ecosystem, where certain things are located on the Island, not to mention the specific concerns of residents. I used the term ‘crowdsourcing’ to indicate that the scientists are eliciting ideas from Vineyarders — asking them to fill in their knowledge gaps and help them to anticipate the outcomes of the proposed experiment on this ecosystem. The results of the crowdsourcing process will feed into their experimental design and ultimately inform the decision about whether the experiment goes forward.”

In Vineyard Haven, after several audience members won tick-related prizes during a tick trivia game hosted by Martha’s Vineyard High School science teacher Carrie Fyler, Esvelt told the audience his team will continue to assess what the community wants to do.

Asked how the program was progressing on Nantucket, Esvelt said it is moving along at a similar pace — the community is still deliberating and evaluating.