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"Mice Against Ticks" Gathers More Feedback On Martha's Vineyard And Nantucket

The research takes aim at white-footed mice, which spread Lyme disease.
D. Gordon E. Robertson / Wikicommons /

Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket aren’t just hotspots for summer visitors. They’re hotspots for Lyme disease. That, plus the fact they are islands, make them attractive places to try novel ways to stop the spread of Lyme disease.

Kevin Esvelt of MIT’s Media Lab has a particularly innovative – and potentially controversial – idea about how to do just that. Esvelt’s idea is to genetically modify mice to make them permanently and heritably immune to Lyme disease. They call the project Mice Against Ticks.

He and others from his research group meet regularly with community members on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to update and educate them, and to hear their questions, concerns, and ideas about the proposed project. The most recent meeting on Martha's Vineyard was on July 12, 2018. Another is planned for Tuesday, August 7, 2018 at 5:30pm at the Nantucket Atheneum.

From the beginning in June 2016, Esvelt asked the people of Nantucket to give the project direction. Since then, he’s also asked people on Martha’s Vineyard what they want the lab to do with the mice.

“And what they said was, 'We would definitely like you to immunize them against Lyme disease,'” Esvelt told Living Lab Radio. “'We would like you to immunize them against ticks as well, if that’s possible. But we would prefer that you not use DNA from anything other than a white-footed mouse.'”

Immunizing mice against ticks would mean getting the mouse’s immune system to recognize when it’s been bitten by a tick and mounting a response that would force the tick to drop off before it has gotten a full blood meal. The tick would then die.

Since the white-footed mouse is the primary reservoir for all the dieseases transmitted by ticks, this approach would protect people against even more diseases.

So far, Esvelt’s lab has immunized mice against Lyme diease and figured out which immune cells produce “recognition molecules.”

“We’ve isolated the immune cells that we believe are protective against Lyme disease,” Esvelt said.

In other words, the lab has a list of genes that are candidates to be modified. If the work is successful, the release of mice would start on small, uninhabited islands.

“You have to start small and local and see what happens before scaling up,” Esvelt said. “Because we don’t know for sure what would happen.”

If the trials on the uninhabited islands are successful, the lab could release the mice on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. But only with the support of the public.

“People who live in an area know more about the environment than we do,” Esvelt said.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.