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Ethics of using genetic engineering to eliminate Lyme disease

23 January 2017

Since January 2017, Jeantine Lunshof (Dept of Genetics, UMCG) has been leading a bioethics research project to study the ethical implications of the use of novel genetic engineering methods for the elimination of Lyme disease. This project is a unique collaboration with Professor Kevin Esvelt from the MIT Media Lab. It receives funding from the Greenwall Foundation, under the program ‘Making a Difference in Real-World Bioethics Dilemmas’ ( The project works in parallel with genetic engineering research that aims at ‘immunizing’ mice against Borrelia burgdorferi and/or tick saliva in order to prevent the transmission of tick-borne pathogens for which the mouse is a reservoir (see press release below). Here, genome editing is used to alter an ecosystem. Such interventions in the shared space of the environment can only be initiated if acceptable to the communities involved. But, what does ‘acceptable’ mean? By what process should communities and scientists jointly make decisions from the earliest stages of project planning? The project entitled “A mutually responsive approach to developing technologies that alter shared ecosystems” will develop a model that can serve as the normative backbone of Responsive Science.

Press release

Ethicist Jeantine Lunshof, who works at the UMCG and Harvard Medical School (Boston, USA), is heading a bioethics research project to examine the introduction of a brand new method designed to eliminate Lyme disease. Before a programme of genetic immunization for mice is introduced on islands off the coast of Boston, Lunshof is studying a new way of actively involving the local population in this scientific research. She has been awarded a prestigious Greenwall Foundation grant for the project, which focuses on research and development in the field of bio-ethics.

​Lunshof has spent over ten years working in the laboratory of the American geneticist George Church. The lab has made countless breakthroughs in genome research and synthetic biology. One of the areas Lunshof is researching concerns the societal implications of new genetic techniques being developed in the lab, including a new technique known as genome editing, which involves making highly precise modifications to the genome of organisms.

Genetically modified insects or animals can be released into the wild to fight certain diseases. The questions that now need to be answered are whether this will have further consequences and whether it is ethically sound. A concrete plan has been devised to tackle Lyme disease, a disease transmitted by ticks infected with a specific bacterium. Scientists in the research group of Professor Kevin Esvelt from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a method whereby mice, serving as a host for ticks, are genetically altered to develop antibodies against the Lyme bacteria, or against the ticks themselves. The mice become immune and cannot be infected by the bacteria. As it would be practically impossible to vaccinate each individual mouse, the researchers have used genome editing to make immunity hereditary, thus ensuring that all descendants of the genetically modified  mice will also be immune to the Lyme bacteria.

The aim of the research is to release a large colony of these mice on a small island off the coast of Boston so that all the mice living there will eventually inherit the genetic modification. ‘At present, the biologists are using calculation models to study the ecological implications of this experiment with hereditary immunization’, explains Lunshof. ‘You are in fact replacing the entire population with new, genetically altered animals.’

An intervention in nature of this kind can only be carried out with the consent of the local population, which is why the local community has been actively involved in the research right from the start. To facilitate this, Esvelt’s research group at MIT developed a new model for effective cooperation between researchers and population. It is known as Responsive Science and involves total transparency about the content and progress of the research project – with online access to all the documents – and continual consultation with citizens, organizations and administrators of the islands.

‘The population will ultimately decide whether the project is implemented’, says Lunshof. She and Esvelt will study whether this method of Responsive Science is effective. Lunshof is principal researcher on the bio-ethics project, which is being headed from within MIT. A student from Groningen is also working on the genetic side of the research at Harvard Medical School and MIT, under her supervision.

‘We have regular consultations with the local population about our scientific research into the genetic immunization of mice, all of which are meticulously documented’, explains Lunshof. Various meetings have been held on the islands Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard; video documentation is available online*. An important question in Lunshof’s research is that of whether and how individuals and the community as a whole can reach a decision about whether genetic intervention is an acceptable way of combatting Lyme disease.

‘A careful philosophical and ethical analysis is essential when designing a framework for decisions with far-reaching consequences, particularly when people have very different views and values’, continues Lunshof. ‘Research like this forms the core of my work, in which I try to link philosophy and ethics with the latest insights in natural and life sciences.’ The bio-ethical research project has started in January 2017, but it will be several years before the genetically immune mice are actually released on the islands – assuming the population consents.

Lunshof’s research has become crucial since scientists started working on novel techniques that permit modifying the genome of organisms and of entire wild populations. Releasing modified mice would not work on the mainland, where the mouse population has a constant influx of non-immune mice. Another technique would be required, known as gene drive. This ensures that a genetic alteration spreads rapidly and unlimited within a population. The gene drive technique is also being developed to try to eliminate mosquitoes in parts of the world where they spread serious diseases. In this case, the technique involves, for example, introducing mutations that make female mosquitoes infertile.

Lunshof works on various projects at Harvard, including the Personal Genome Project, for which 100,000 volunteers have allowed DNA and medical data to be stored in a public databank. She developed the Open Consent procedure, which ensures that participants are informed about, and give consent for, public, non-anonymous use of their data.

In the Genetics department of the UMCG, Lunshof examens ethical questions relating to large-scale genome research and works in close collaboration with the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Groningen. In addition, she is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the CRISPR Core Facility at ERIBA.

* Videos: Martha's Vineyard, July 2016;​ Nantucket Board of Health, June 2016

Last modified:15 February 2018 12.56 p.m.
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