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Science & Environment

Genetically Engineered Mice May Combat Lyme Disease on Martha's Vineyard


On Martha’s Vineyard, Lyme Disease and other tick borne illnesses are common topics of conversation. WCAI correspondent Angela Scionti reports about a new project that could stop transmission of these diseases. 

It is Dr. Nevena Zubcevik’s first time traveling from her job at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in Oak Bluffs. Once here, she’s greeted by a crowd of people desperate for information. Zubcevik is an expert in tick-borne diseases. And she’s here to update patients about the diseases’ new diagnostics, therapeutics, and rehabilitation efforts around tick borne illnesses, particularly Lyme Disease.


“We have an epidemic throughout the United States, and Martha’s Vineyard is a hotspot, in being that it is an island.”


With so much tick-related disease here, Zubcevik says the Vineyard is prime for something bigger than the standard prevention and treatment methods.


“There could be innovative, preventive strategies that could be applied here in more of a controlled environment, and I would like to be a part of more rigorous prevention, and treatment strategies so that the people on Martha’s Vineyard, both the tourists and the locals can have a Lyme Disease and tick born illness-free existence," says Zubcevik. 


That’s the dream – an island free from tick-born illnesses. But what if it was more than a dream? What if there was a scientific solution that could prevent Lyme disease and potentially other tick-related illnesses from ever finding their way into the human body? 


Kevin Esvelt thinks he might have a way. He doesn’t know if it will be successful yet, but the MIT professor who works in a lab across the river from Zubcevik, is developing a plan to rid Martha’s Vineyard and the neighboring island of Nantucket of Lyme Disease.


“If we make mice that are resistant, that cannot be infected, and we release sufficient mice into the population that are effectively immunized against Lyme and other tick borne diseases, then, when the ticks, which are not born infected, bite these mice, they will not become infected.” 


As Zubcevik says, ticks are born disease free. They usually acquire the Lyme pathogen when they have their first meal – and that’s usually the blood of a white-footed mouse. So, Esvelt wants to use genetics to create disease-resistant mice. So when these genetically-modified mice are released into the wild, they won’t be able to pass on the disease to healthy ticks. 


“The idea is that Lyme Disease and other tick-borne infections are really ecological.” Says Esvelt. “They are a product of a transmission cycle, where the pathogen is passed back and forth between white footed mice, primarily, and ticks…infected, there likely there is to be disease.” 


Esvelt is looking to experiment with this idea on both Nantucket and the Vineyard. But the genetically-engineered mice won’t be arriving on the ferries anytime soon. Esvelt says it may take seven years to get an experiment underway. So, in the meantime, Dr. Zubcevik says visitors and locals should use daily prevention. 


“People need to be very vigilant about prevention. Applying insect repellent, every day, especially in the morning when they wake up. Applying permethrin to their backpacks, and the outside of their clothing, and then doing nightly tick checks in the shower, and at any sign of illness, they should be reporting to their doctor.”


Esvelt and his team will be meeting Wednesday, July 20, at the Edgartown Library, at 1pm, to introduce the project to Martha’s Vineyard residents. The team will be explaining how transgenic engineering works, and the ecology behind combatting Lyme and tick borne illness. They’ll also answer questions.


“This is new, this is different. But the reason why we are asking citizens take valuable time out of their days to come and listen to us and discuss the matter, is because none of the technology is unknown”, says Esvelt.


Esvelt and his colleagues say that engaging the Martha’s Vineyard community about their experiment is important for the project’s success – and success means eliminating Lyme disease from Martha’s Vineyard.