AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: kylsquared

Modifying Genes to Cure a Blood Disease?

Helen Bolando, a 16 year old living with sickle cell disease, recently became the youngest recipient of an experimental treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital. This treatment made her the youngest person to have her DNA manipulated in hopes of reversing sickle cell’s effects. 

What is sickle cell disease?

Sickle cell disease is a disorder caused by a gene mutation that causes the shape of blood cells to resemble that of a crescent. Characteristics of sickle disease include a low red blood cell count and frequent infections. Due to their shape, blood cells in individuals with sickle cell cells break down too early, causing a lack thereof. This lack of blood cells is known as sickle cell anemia and causes a multitude of symptoms ranging from fatigue and shortness of breath, to delayed growth in children. Painful episodes are also common due to the shape of the red blood cells. Their crescent shape causes blockages in blood vessels, depriving organs and tissues of oxygen, sometimes leading to organ failure. 

A new gene therapy?

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital have found that hemoglobin genes (genes found in the blood) are only active in the preceding red blood cells. These genes are only active for 4-5 days before red blood cells mature and when they’re active, they communicate with other cells through communication such as long distance signaling, as we’ve learned earlier in our bio class . The question for researchers is as follows: “How do you manipulate a gene, or put a gene in, so it is expressed only in those cells and at high levels?”  New treatments to solve this burning question include the extraction of immature blood cells from patient’s bone marrow. These stem cells are then genetically modified and re-infused in hopes of creating new, healthy blood cells. Even more interestingly, scientists have found that fetal blood cells have an absence of sickle cells and are testing ways to block the gene that stops fetal hemoglobin production and begins that of adult hemoglobin.Bluebird Bio, a biotech company in Cambridge, Mass conducted a study during which nine patients were treated with gene therapy. Results stated that four patients of the nine who were  treated at least six months earlier, produced enough hemoglobin to no longer have the symptoms of sickle-cell disease!

Researchers are making incredible strides in solving this painful disease using extremely creative and innovative techniques! Are there any other methods of solving sickle cell disease you can think of  based on what we’ve learned so far about cell communication? 



Man’s Gut Bacteria Causes Him to Become Drunk Without Alcohol?!

Over a span of six years, a 46 year old man experienced chronic states of drunkenness, but how can that be?

It turns out that he had auto-brewery-syndrome, or ABS. ABS causes carbohydrates in the digestive tract to turn into intoxicating alcohol! Essentially, it is gut bacteria fermentation.  Within auto-brewery syndrome, bacteria is fermented within the gastrointestinal system, producing dangerous amounts of ethanol in the blood.  It is believed that an antibiotic he was prescribed back in 2011 altered his natural gut microbiome, wreaking havoc and causing a multitude of symptoms including “brain fog.”

After traveling to a clinic in Ohio, doctors discovered strains of Saccharomyces boulardii and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, two bacterias known as “brewer’s yeast” for their fermenting and intoxicating qualities. As a result, doctors put him on an anti-fungal and no-carb diet, but with little to no avail he continued to experience flare ups and a fatal blood alcohol concentration of .4%! Doctors at Richmond University Medical Center then prescribed him antibiotics which also resulted in a relapse when he ate a slice of pizza. Finally, as a last attempt, he was prescribed probiotics to promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria and after a few months, he was able to incorporate carbs back into his diet.




Did you know that the body could produce its own alcohol? What are some other effects that an unbalanced microbiome may have on the body? 




The Ketogenic Diet: Potentially Life Threatening?


What is the keto diet?

The ketogenic, widely known as ‘keto’, diet has become a popular diet for weight loss among adults in the US. Although it was originally curated to reduce seizures in children, many use low-carb, high fat diet to slim down. The keto diet requires that you eat 75% of daily calories from fat, 5% from carbohydrates, and 15% from protein. The average person gets about 20-35% of their daily calories from fat, and dieticians recommend you get about 50% carbs from your meals, so is this diet safe?


Triggering Ketosis

The keto diet causes the body to switch from burning glucose (produced by carbs) to burning ketones (produced by fat), triggering ketosis. During ketosis, when the body doesn’t have enough stored glucose to create energy, ketones are released. Ketones are results of the body breaking down fat for energy. Throughout ketosis (the release of ketones), the body breaks down dietary fact and then body fat, resulting in the sought after fat loss of the keto diet. Ketosis is normal, but can pose a threat to those with Type 1 or 2 Diabetes as lack of insulin can cause a build up of ketones and glucose in the blood. The pros of ketosis include increased brain performance as ketones cross the blood-brain barrier and physical energy. Adverse effects include fatigue, irritability, and feeling “foggy,” so is this ketogenic diet all that safe? 


What happens when glucose is reintroduced? 

Led by associate professor Jonathan Little  in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at UBCO, researchers at the UBC Okanagan campus conducted a study to test how the body would react when reintroduced to glucose. As test subjects, they used nine healthy males and put them on a high fat, low-carb diet (ketogenic)  consisting of 70% fat, 20% protein, and 10% carbs, for seven days. They were each given a 75 gram glucose drink before and after the week long trial and the results were astounding! Biomarkers (indicate the beginning or ending of a process within the body) in the test subject’s blood signaled damage to vessel walls caused by a sudden surge in glucose levels.Professor Little attributes these biomarkers to the body’s metabolic response when exposed to excess sugars. This process may cause blood cells to shed and possibly die,posing a potential threat for ketogenic dieters!


The verdict?

The researchers at UBC don’t recommend the keto diet as it may be undoing “some of the positive impacts on their blood vessels.” In short, the healthiest option for losing weight is a sustainable, colorful diet and good ‘ol exercise. It’s important to listen to, and act according to what your body needs/is telling you; not just the new fad. 


Have you/would you ever try the ketogenic diet? Comment down below!





Click below for Keto recipes!:



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