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Building a better mouse trap may be the secret to killing disease-carrying ticks

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks.
Bertrand Guay | AFP | Getty Images
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks.

The trick to killing disease-carrying ticks may lie in building a better mouse trap.

Deer are often blamed for carrying the diseases, such as Lyme, that ticks spread to humans, but research has shown mice and other rodents are far more effective hosts for the insects.

So scientists have been testing a device made by a small Connecticut company that tricks ordinary wild mice into becoming tick-killing machines, offering what some researchers think could be the best hope for controlling the ticks spreading dangerous, even fatal, diseases across an ever-broadening portion of the United States.

The Select TCS Tick Control System is a commercially available box researchers are deploying in field studies, and results suggest the box could control tick populations without the environmental and health concerns typically associated with covering areas in pesticides.

The boxes are a variation on the "bait boxes" exterminators use to lure and catch mice and rodents. However, instead of luring and containing the rodents or killing them with bait, these "tick boxes" are booby-trapped with a piece cloth soaked in insecticide that the animals are forced to come in contact with as they enter and leave the box.

Mice, and other small animals then become walking lethal traps for ticks, but are not harmed themselves — the insecticide used in these studies is the same kind used in anti-tick medications for household pets.

A study published this month in the Journal of Medical Entomology showed tick numbers on several properties in New Jersey dropped by 97 percent in 2014, after two separate 9-week tick box treatments in the prior two years. It is the latest of several studies, often sponsored by or done in collaboration with the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The box, is made by a small Connecticut company called Tick Box Technology Corporation. David Whitman, who owns the company as well as a collection of pest control businesses with his twin brother Richard, told CNBC he had worked on the development of the box from the very beginning, circa the year 2000.

The Whitman brothers acted as consultants for the CDC researchers who had developed and patented the original concept, and then also with scientists from Aventis CropSciences (now owned by Bayer), who first acquired the commercial rights.

Being professional exterminators, the Whitmans were the ones who installed the boxes in early CDC field trials, and they provided advice on the product and how it should be deployed.

Dave also invented and began manufacturing a two-piece metal shroud for the box, to protect it from the squirrels that were ripping open the box to get at the bait and ruining field trials.

Bayer sold the rights back to the Whitmans in 2011.

"At the time, it was a niche product," Whitman told CNBC in an interview. "Now ticks and tick-borne diseases are spreading across the country like wildfire."

The box can only be sold to pest control professionals, but Whitman said sales of the product are climbing every year. They are registered to sell the box in 26 states.

Felicia Keesing, an ecologist who is running a similar ongoing test with the Whitmans' boxes, said the New Jersey study looked convincing, despite a few "quirks," such as using a nearby wildlife area as a control space, when they were putting the bait boxes in people's yards.

"Normally when you think of a control, you would think of using the same type of location" as the area you are testing, she said in an interview.

"The most important part is this is yet another demonstration that these tick boxes reduce the number of ticks in people's yards, and particularly reduce their numbers on rodents," Keesing said.

Keesing, along with her husband and research partner Rick Ostfeld, are treating whole neighborhoods with the boxes, rather than the 12 properties in the study above. They are also comparing the effectiveness of the boxes with a commercially available fungal insecticide spray.

They chose both of those products because they were among a small set of chemicals that were already commercially available, environmentally safe, and they had to have been shown to be effective already.

That was because Keesing and Ostfeld wanted something that people can go out and begin using as soon as the study's results are available.

That is in part because the problem of tick-borne disease, once a regional problem, is becoming ever more urgent.

Lyme has spread into new regions of the country, and become more of a problem in its historical strongholds.

Mice, squirrels, and other small animals then become walking lethal traps for ticks.
Getty Images
Mice, squirrels, and other small animals then become walking lethal traps for ticks.

Lyme is not the only disease ticks and their rodent hosts can spread, either. Others, such as Powassan virus, are far more rare, but can be brutal — Powassan in particular swells the brain, causing neurological damage in about half of the patients lucky enough to recover. The virus is fatal in others.

Other dangerous diseases include Anaplasmosis and babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, southern tick-associated rash illness and others, depending on the region of the country. Some of them are not even well known to science.

Then there are other diseases researchers know are out there, but are not well known to science.

Keesing and Ostfeld are in the second year of their five-year study.

"We are throwing everything we can for the next four years at these ticks, and then we will have results," she said. "If this doesn't work, then environmental interventions are not going to be the way to solve this problem."