What if there was a way to eradicate a disease in just a few years? Having the ability to completely remove deadly ailments from humans and animals sounds far-fetched but may in fact be the future of science.
According to The New Yorker, Kevin Esvelt, the director of the “sculpting evolution” group at MIT, and his colleagues have been working to answer that very question with their proposed research of altering the genes of mice that are susceptible to Lyme bacteria.
The team has proposed an experiment in which they will design molecular tools, with the help of CRISPR, a DNA editing tool, to essentially rewrite the DNA of white-footed mice to make them immune to Lyme bacteria and other tick-borne diseases.
If tests are successful, Esvelt plans to seek permission to repeat the process on Nantucket, where over one fourth of residents have been affected by Lyme disease, and Martha’s Vineyard. Lyme is the most rapidly spreading disease in the United States, making caution take precedent over enjoying time spent outdoors, especially in the Northeast.
Lyme disease is usually treatable with one round of antibiotics if caught early enough, but can lead to years of pain and neurological issues if left unchecked. Though a vaccine for humans does not yet exist, there is a vaccine that is effective on dogs and mice and it is this treatment that Esvelt hopes to use in his project.
The team would use the vaccine to sequence the DNA of the most protective antibodies and transfer those genes to mouse eggs in hopes of building up immunities in the new mouse population.
This project is one of many that aim to use genetic editing tools to modify animals’ DNA to stop diseases like Lyme, malaria and schistosomiasis. Tools like CRISPR have made the genetic modification process more streamlined and Esvelt hopes that progressions in science will allow for more research like his.
“The most important application of gene drive … is to change the way we do science,” Esvelt said. Interfering with nature in this way is still a highly charged subject in the science community but teams like Esvelt’s see the projects as a way to have profound impacts on society and are committed to remaining open and transparent to the public regarding their work.
Genetic modification and rewriting DNA to end diseases on a wide scale may still be far off, but teams and scientists are ready and willing to move forward into this next chapter of science.
Top photo by Tambako The Jaguar CC BY-ND 2.0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.