AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: sadoplasm

How America is Failing Black Women During Pregnancy and Childbirth

In the United States, about 700 women die each year due to pregnancy related causes and about 65,000 women come close to death. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate compared to developed nations. Maternal mortality is when a person dies during pregnancy, at delivery or shortly after childbirth. While this is a shocking statistic, an even more surprising one is that in the United States, Black women are three to four times more likely to die because of a pregnancy-related issue than white women. This disproportionate ratio is one of the reasons that the United States Mortality rate is much higher than other developed countries. But, the death of many of these Black mothers are preventable. 

In the past, healthcare professionals and researchers have attributed this high rate of mortality due to pre existing conditions because Black women are more likely to be obese or hypertensive. More recently, in the scientific community there has been an agreement that the blame should not be placed on the women but instead on systemic racism. This is not only in healthcare but also because of other social inequities such as access to food, good schools, jobs, and safe drinking water, just to name a few. When understanding health inequities it is important to look at these social determinants of health, as well as access to prenatal care. While the blame is put on a number of complex issues, unconscious bias of healthcare providers play an important role. This is shown clearly through Serena Williams childbirth complications. Williams is at the top of her field, and a well respected woman. Despite being such an affluent figure, she was dismissed when she told nurses that her breath was shortening during childbirth. The nurses wasted crucial time even though they were informed of Williams’ medical history. Serena William’s story does not stand alone, well off Black women are more likely to die than white women due to pregnancy related issues. In general, one in four Black women report feeling disrespected by medical professionals. There are so many stories, such as, a new mother whose doctors didn’t believe her when she said she was having a heart attack until she had a second one, a mother whose obesity was blamed when she had trouble breathing when in the end it was her heart failing.

Recognizing the issue is only part of it, the next step is to implement policy and change to ensure that Black mothers do not die due to systemic racism and bias in the healthcare system. One way to potentially decrease the high rates in mortality is to recognize race as a factor during prenatal screenings, this way pre-existing conditions and health complications are less likely to be blamed. Hospitals should implement training on unconscious bias because if healthcare providers are not aware of the issue, they may not notice their own bias. There should also be a push for more standardized healthcare, an increased awareness around maternal health and ensuring that mothers make decisions about their own care. Realistically, there is not one answer to this issue as it goes beyond the healthcare system and instead is just one outcome of systemic racism in the United States. So, what do you think is the best solution to decrease the disproportion mortalities in maternal medicine?

Could Rapid Testing Be the Key to Beating COVID-19?

A study published by University of Colorado Boulder and Harvard University researchers, states that rapid tests could help the world come close to eliminating COVID-19. The study focused on whether sensitivity of the tests, or turnaround times of getting the results is more important. By using mathematical formulas, different scenarios and three locations (a 10,000 person population, a university setting and in a large city) they came to conclude that when trying to slow the spread, frequency of testing and turnaround time is more important than the sensitivity of the test.

It is important to note the difference between the PCR test and the rapid antigen test. A PCR test, which uses polymerase chain reaction technology (hence the name) to detect traces of the virus’ genetic material. A rapid antigen test does not trace the genetic material but instead looks for specific proteins on the surface of the virus, known as antigens. A PCR test can detect one SARS-CoV-2 RNA molecule for a positive test result, the rapid antigen test needs thousands of virus particles for a positive test result. An antigen is present on the outside of a pathogen. In adaptive response to pathogens, dendritic cells place these antigens on display. The antigens are what allows the T-helper cells to recognize the antigen and trigger the cell mediated and humoral response. Therefore, if your body is fighting against COVID-19, the antigens would be displayed on cells and the rapid test may recognize them.

In one of the scenarios a large city had widespread rapid testing two times a week and they reduced the infections by 80% compared to widespread PCR testing done two times a week that only reduced infection by 58%. This scenario shows that because two thirds of infected people do not show symptoms as they wait for their results they are not quarantining. If people receive the positive tests results sooner, they can self-isolate sooner.

People have felt hesitant about rapid testing since it is less accurate than PCR testing and may miss cases where levels of infected particles are too low. However, it has been shown that there is a short time period where PCR testing will show a positive, and rapid tests won’t. This is because infected particles can go from 5,000 to 1 million in less than 24 hours. During this short window of time it is also likely that the patient is not contagious yet. 

Personally, I think that having more accessible rapid tests will be a huge help to curbing the virus. Even with less sensitivity, if a person tests positive then they self-isolate up to up to 48 hours quicker, if tests results take longer, then even more. This means that less people will get infected. I know that when family members have gotten tested, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, tests took 5 days when the labs were backed up. If they had not been properly quarantined during the 5 days, this could pose a danger to others. Therefore, I think that the accuracy can be put aside for the speed of the test results.

So, what do you think? Is rapid testing the inexpensive, fast, key piece to curbing the infection rate, or is the accuracy of tests more important?

Does This Protein Trigger Alzheimer’s Disease?

Research done by scientists at the Instituto de Neurociencias de Alicante, in Spain has revealed that the way people with Alzheimer’s process a key protein may lead to the creation of new tests and maybe even treatments. Alzheimer’s disease is a common form of dementia, where memory and thinking skills are progressively lost.

People with Alzheimers have a build up of insoluble plaques made of beta-amyloid and tau, both are proteins. Beta-amyloid is a part of a much larger protein called amyloid precursor protein, which is otherwise known as APP. APP is broken down by enzymes into either a beta-amyloid fragment, which is harmful, and causes Alzheimers, or another harmless fragment.

The process of the beta-amyloids forming insoluble plaques.

Glycosylation is the process of adding sugars to proteins, to form a glycoprotein, during production and the location of these sugar molecules is important in determining the ultimate destination of the protein in the cell. The glycosylation of the amyloid is altered in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient, research suggests. Therefore, the protein is being processed in such a way where more beta-amyloid is being produced. This mutation no matter how small, can play a huge role in how the protein functions. Proteins have a unique shape determined by the interactions of their side chains. The shape the protein forms usually has to match with another molecule or structure. If the structure is mutated in any way, the protein may not remain the same shape and therefore not match the shape of another molecule or structure. This causes a change in the function. Therefore in this case with amyloid, how the protein is glycosylated will determine where it ends up in the cell membrane, due to shape and this will determine if an enzyme will break it down or not. 

The research found a difference between Alzheimer and non-alzheimer patients in terms of how APP is glycosylated. The patterns of APP glycosylation were evidently different. The patterns of proteins are so crucial to their function and structure. So, researchers were able to perform a chemical analysis and found that these different patterns may be a result of different processing of the protein. By processing APP differently, it may trigger Alzheimers. The protein structure is changed and the protein will not act the same. Therefore, with this knowledge, by looking for APP that has an altered way of being glycosylated, it may be easier to detect Alzheimers and inspire treatments in the future. This research is so exciting and important because one day it can help with Alzheimer’s treatments. Not only will it be a great detection test, but the by preventing the creation of beta-amyloid Alzheimers may be preventable in the future or easier to spot. Do you think this sounds like a promising next step to Alzheimer’s detection and treatment?

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