In an effort to curb Lyme disease, scientists hope to release thousands of genetically altered mice on Nantucket

Jimmy Day/MIT Media Lab

NANTUCKET — As spring emerged on this island of manicured estates and idyllic beaches, a group of scientists from the Boston area arrived on a recent afternoon with an extraordinary request for local officials: Let us release hordes of genetically altered mice into the wild. Hundreds of thousands of them, potentially.

The engineered rodents would look exactly like the native white-footed mice. But each of their cells would carry genetic code, specially tailored in an MIT lab, for resistance to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. White-footed mice are a key reservoir for the harmful bacteria.

Because mice breed so quickly and prolifically, the scientists are betting the genes of the new rodents would predominate soon after their release. The immunized mice, they hope, would curb the spread of Lyme, which has increased dramatically here in recent years and is now the most common infectious disease on the island.

If fewer mice carry Lyme, the scientists say, fewer ticks that bite them would become infected. That, in turn, would mean fewer ticks that bite humans would carry Lyme, which is becoming more prevalent throughout New England as a warming climate allows more ticks to survive winter.

“With so many people suffering from Lyme every single day, which is an awful disease, we need a solution urgently,” said Joanna Buchthal, research director of the MIT Media Lab’s Mice Against Ticks project, who has close friends who suffer from Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. “This offers a real, if revolutionary, way to tackle the problem.”

But some fear that tinkering with nature by using new gene-editing technology could lead to a host of unintended consequences, which the scientists acknowledge are legitimate concerns.

“Technology can make the world worse,” said Kevin Esvelt, a biologist and associate professor at MIT who helped found the project. “Our overall goal is to advance this safely, safeguarding it from mistrust and misuse, and setting a precedent for how this is done.”

Their first-of-its-kind proposal would require significant vetting by local, state, and federal regulators, such as the Food and Drug Administration. It will also require support from residents here and on Martha’s Vineyard, where the scientists also hope to release hundreds of thousands of engineered mice.

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