When thinking about insects and disease, many people may not initially consider ticks. However, ticks can spread Lyme disease and other tick-borne disease such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and anaplasmosis. These conditions can be difficult to diagnose, treat, and manage, especially Lyme disease.
Research is constantly bringing to light new information about the biology of ticks and how they spread disease, and this insight can be used to further aid in the prevention of tick-borne disease cases across the globe. One particular group of researchers have sought to understand the tick further through genome editing. So what’s in store for the future of genome editing and Lyme disease? Read on to learn more.
What is genome editing?
Every living thing, including humans, animals, and plants, has genetic material. This material is designed to relay information that is needed for the next generation to develop. When genome editing takes place, genetic material is manipulated to add, delete, or replace new DNA sequences. Typically, this process is used to help humans who have genetically driven health disorders, or to encourage better outcomes in farming.
Genome editing can also be used in certain disease-carrying organisms as a way to prevent the spread of dangerous illnesses. In the past, for example, genome editing has been carried out on mosquitos. The insects were given a new type of DNA sequence that, when passed down to offspring, caused them to essentially self-destruct. This technique, known as CRISPR, was introduced as a way to stop malaria from spreading through mosquitos.
CRISPR, which is short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat”, is a small piece of DNA found within bacteria that lives in the immune system. The bacteria use CRISPR as a way to remember certain pathogens so that the immune system can hunt and destroy them if they happen to infiltrate the body a second time.
The mosquitos involved in the abovementioned genome editing project have not yet been released into the wild, because more research is needed to see if the change of DNA sequences is effective; however, the results thus far show promise.
What diseases can be cured with gene editing?
The CRISPR technique can potentially be used to curb a wide variety of diseases. Although some are still in the research phase, genome editing for other conditions such as HIV has been successfully trialed.
Other diseases that show promise when it comes to genome editing include:
- Cardiovascular diseases such as Barth syndrome
- Metabolic diseases such as diabetes
- Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s
- Viral diseases
- Eye diseases such as glaucoma and retinitis pigmentosa
- Hematological diseases such as hemophilia and sickle cell anemia
- Other diseases that have hereditary components, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and immunodeficient conditions
There is also further research surrounding genome editing and cancer treatments (known as immunotherapy), diagnostic applications, and screening processes for certain diseases.
Lyme disease and gene editing
Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness that is caused by bacteria, and that bacteria can live within ticks without causing them illness. The reason ticks can carry the bacteria is thought to be because of two special fat molecules that help keep the infection from taking over while still harboring the bacteria within their bodies.
New research surrounding ticks and genome editing has given medical scientists fresh hope when it comes to preventing Lyme disease cases using the same CRISPR technique mentioned above. In the case of ticks, being able to use CRISPR has long been next to impossible because of the structure of tick embryos. They are typically enclosed in a thick and waxy substance that makes the injection of new genetic material impossible.
However, researchers have worked to remove the specialized organ that creates the thick protective coating in the embryos while still allowing them to lay eggs. The eggs from the ticks that had this specific organ removed had no protective coating. Without it, researchers could then inject the genetic material into the embryo without issue.
While this new research is still in its infancy, it is paving the start of the road that will take scientists to genome editing in ticks as a way to prevent the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.