Modeling the efficacy of CRISPR gene drive for snail immunity on schistosomiasis control

R. E. Grewelle, J. Perez-Saez, J. Tycko, E. K. O. Namigai, C. G. Rickards and G. A. De Leo,  PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases,  16:e0010894. 2022.

CRISPR gene drives could revolutionize the control of infectious diseases by accelerating the spread of engineered traits that limit parasite transmission in wild populations. Gene drive technology in mollusks has received little attention despite the role of freshwater snails as hosts of parasitic flukes causing 200 million annual cases of schistosomiasis. A successful drive in snails must overcome self-fertilization, a common feature of host snails which could prevents a drive’s spread. Here we developed a novel population genetic model accounting for snails’ mixed mating and population dynamics, susceptibility to parasite infection regulated by multiple alleles, fitness differences between genotypes, and a range of drive characteristics. We integrated this model with an epidemiological model of schistosomiasis transmission to show that a snail population modification drive targeting immunity to infection can be hindered by a variety of biological and ecological factors; yet under a range of conditions, disease reduction achieved by chemotherapy treatment of the human population can be maintained with a drive. Alone a drive modifying snail immunity could achieve significant disease reduction in humans several years after release. These results indicate that gene drives, in coordination with existing public health measures, may become a useful tool to reduce schistosomiasis burden in selected transmission settings with effective CRISPR construct design and evaluation of the genetic and ecological landscape.

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