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Gene Editing Could Stop the Spread of Lyme Disease

Ticks — tiny, spider-like parasites the size of sesame seeds — infect nearly 30,000 Americans with Lyme disease every year, and that number is expected to rise. Though the growing population of ticks and rate of infection are of great concern to both the public and the scientific community, these predators are not at the root of the problem.

Ticks become infected with Lyme disease when they feed on infected rodents — particularly, the white-footed mouse, which is the greatest carrier of the disease. A lethal bite from an infected tick is enough to pass the disease onto the prey, human or animal. If not treated in time, they could experience symptoms like fevers, headaches, muscle pain and arthritis for many years after.

MIT evolutionary biologist Kevin Esvelt’s proposed solution is to use gene editing to prevent mice from contracting the disease in the first place. This would help stop the infection from spreading to ticks and reduce the number of infected mice significantly.

The impact of Lyme disease on our health is especially concerning on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where nearly half of people who grew up on the island have contracted Lyme disease at least once in their life, according to Roberto Santamaria, the director of the island’s health department.

“If we were to immunize all of the mice so they couldn’t carry these pathogens, then we could disrupt the transmission cycle and prevent most cases of tick-borne disease,” Esvelt says.

Though Esvelt and his team are still years from an initial field trial, they’re confident that Lyme-resistant mice could save thousands of lives every year from the disease’s debilitating side effects.

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