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MIT research could help Island tick problem

COURTESY PHOTO A lone star tick.

COURTESY PHOTO A lone star tick.

Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could one day be part of the arsenal used in the battle to reduce the incidence of tick-borne diseases on Shelter Island.

Scientist Kevin Estvelt and his team at MIT’s “Sculpting Evolution Group” are working on technology they hope will stop a number of serious diseases in their tracks, including malaria in Africa and India spread by mosquitoes.

But first, within a few years, the group’s research could be altering the ability of white-footed mice to spread Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

The research and experimentation first came to the attention of Shelter Island’s Deer & Tick Committee from a January story in the New Yorker. In a discussion with Professor Estvelt last week, the MIT scientist told the Reporter he’s willing to come to Shelter Island if the Deer & Tick Committee has interest in learning more about his team’s work and possibly becoming a part of the project.

“The committee is always open to any new ideas,” Chairman Mike Scheibel said when the Reporter contacted him. “It seems to be interesting.”

The next committee meeting is set for March 1.

But in the interim, Professor Estvelt’s advice to Island committee members is to stay on the current track of using 4-poster units — feeding stands that brush deer with a tickicide, permethrin — culling the deer herd and educating the public about ways to avoid tick-borne diseases and seeking treatment if for tick bites.

The MIT team is working with three subspecies of white-footed mice, two on Martha’s Vineyard and one on Nantucket. The project underway involves vaccinating the mice and sequencing the DNA of the most protective antibodies. Scientists would implant the genes needed to make the antibodies into mouse eggs, with mice born from those eggs having a natural protection from Lyme.

Over time, those immune mice would mate with wild mice and the mouse population would become immune.

If Shelter Island has interest in becoming involved in the project, the team would have to determine the subspecies of white-footed mice here. If they match any of those three strains, it’s possible the Island could be added to the experiment, Professor Estvelt said.

His team is guided, he said, by two important rules in the research:
• Make the smallest change possible to solve a problem
• Start small and see what results before expanding any application

“Scientists should hold themselves morally responsible,” Professor Estvelt said.

Nothing is going to eradicate all ticks, he added during the Reporter interview. But it could reduce the insect’s population by 50 percent initially and eventually a 90 percent reduction is a strong possibility.

It’s not a rapid process; there’s an anticipated two more years of work in the laboratory and at least another year in trials.

“We’re just tweaking the genome of white-footed mice and don’t expect to change the mice in many ways,” Professor Estvelt said.

Presently the MIT team is working only with deer ticks, but the experiment could also eventually be applied to lone star ticks, Professor Estvelt said, noting that’s part of Shelter Island’s problem.

Before embarking on the project in any area, he noted his team not only need support from other scientists, but from residents of areas where they’re conducting research.

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