Mark Borigini M.D.

Overcoming Pain

Treating Lyme Disease: Mouse as Weapon of Mass Destruction?

Hey, if Michael Jackson could sing a love song about a rat...

Posted Jan 29, 2017

Many readers of Psychology Today have expressed their concerns regarding the negative impact (chronic pain, chronic fatigue) infection with Lyme disease has had on their lives.  A recent article in The New Yorker focused on whether gene editing technologies might be used to tackle the problem of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is an illness transmitted by ticks. Ticks accomplish this transmission of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi (B burgdorferi), mainly by feeding on small mammals, such as deer mice, which are chronically infected with the Lyme disease bacterium.  Ticks bite people, and people come down with Lyme disease.

Scientists are now developing genes to produce significant immunity to B burgdorferi (Lyme disease),  planning on splicing them into mice, and breeding that population so that it is effectively immune to Lyme disease. Then these mice could be released to breed with native mice and therefore eventually render the entire rodent population free of this infection. Ticks will feed on mice that no longer have Lyme disease, so they will no longer effectively transmit it to humans.

But then comes that nagging echo, bouncing off the packaging  of that no-GMO bag of potato chips we picked up for game day:  When is it a good thing to engineer nature?  Or, as our friends in the public health sector would state it, what is the risk-benefit calculation here?

After all, once a certain scientific facility with the gene engineering process is attained, what evil mind might consider weaponizing that annoying mosquito, or that cute little mouse?

Because only approximately 25-30% of United States patients with early Lyme disease recall the tick bite, the health care provider encountering the patient who may be presenting with Lyme disease must direct the history toward the possibility of a tick bite, assuming a potential Lyme disease victim is fortunate enough to encounter a health care provider who is considering Lyme disease as a possible diagnosis. (In Europe, 64% do not remember being bitten.) Patients are generally unaware of a tick bite because these ticks are extremely small (nymphal Ixodes ticks are approximately the size of a poppy seed) and their bites are often painless.

It is no wonder that the diagnosis of Lyme disease is often delayed. 

And it is therefore not surprising that an alternative to the slow diagnostic process, such as the prevention approach of genetic engineering, is of great interest to the scientific community:  As with many infections, prompt treatment greatly improves the success of whatever the therapy chosen; maybe someday we will not have to treat.

References Accessed January 29, 2017.