Will CRISPR mice stymie Lyme?

Scientists hear Islanders' thoughts on unprecedented solution to borrelia epidemic.

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A panel of tick experts talks about the possibility of using genetically-manipulated mice in the battle against tick-borne illnesses.

With Martha’s Vineyard Community Television and Netflix cameras rolling at the Katharine Cornell Theater Thursday night, Islanders took in a presentation about how genetic manipulation of mice could stanch Lyme disease on the Vineyard.

Dr. Duane Wesemann, a researcher from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explained to the audience that by manipulating genes in white-footed mice, the Mice Against Ticks team aims to permanently vaccinate the rodents against borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria behind Lyme disease. Through clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) techniques, an elevated level of antibodies to the bacteria would be perpetuated in the mice.

Tufts tick researcher Sam Telford, who participated in panel discussions with Mice Against Ticks team members and two bioethicists Thursday evening, 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 that pass the infection, it doesn’t trigger an allergic reaction in the mice. Therefore, he said, the mice don’t groom out the ticks, because they don’t realize they’ve been bitten.

The scientists stressed Mice Against Ticks is a work in progress, and both transparent and community-based. They emphasized they didn’t come to Vineyard Haven to promote the idea of releasing CRISPR mice into “the shared environment,” as MIT researcher Kevin Esvelt, lead scientist on the team, put it, but to answer questions on the idea and to seek guidance from Islanders.

Several audience members won tick-related prizes toward the end of the event during a tick trivia game hosted by Martha’s Vineyard High School science teacher Carrie Flyer.

A more detailed version of this story will be posted soon.