AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: saratonin

New Advancements in Curing Sickle Cell!

Do you know someone who has sickle cell or has passed away at the hands on sickle cell? Well, new treatments using CRISPR technology are under way. This revolutionary treatment is made to last much longer than previous gene editing treatment, which lasted for up to a year. This treatment is called exa-gel made by Vertex and CRISPR. 


How Does It Work?

In sickle cell anemia, mutations in a gene HBB causes a change in the hemoglobin’s structure, causing circular red blood cells to twist into a sickled shape. The sickled red blood cells cause extreme pain and fatigue. In severe cases, beta-thalassemia can occur. Beta-thalassemia causes not enough hemoglobin or red blood cells to be produced, leading to low oxygen levels.  The exa-gel technology targets the hemoglobin protein. It directs the Cas9 enzyme to the BCL11A gene and cuts its DNA off, turning it off. It is then able to produce fetal hemoglobin with normal shape. For this to be done, physicians must remove the bone marrow stem cells, edit them with the exa-cel, destroy the untreated bone marrow, and reinfuse treated cells. In AP Biology, we learned how the regulation of gene expression works. A gene that is usually on but can be turned off is a repressible operon. The operon regulates genes with the help of enzymes. The operator site is where repressor proteins can bind to turn off production. It is in between the promoter and structural genes. Usually, RNA polymerase binds to the promoter to begin production. Once that occurs, mRNA is transcribed. Then, tRNA picks up amino acids and the anticodons bind to the codons for the polypeptide chain to form. Finally, proteins will be produced to allow for the desired outcome to occur. However, Cas9 inhibits this process so that these sick blood cells will not be produced and healthy fetal ones will begin production. 



The Future

While this new technology seems exciting, there are a lot of uncertainties about it. First of all,  “the participants have only been tracked for a short time and that problems could arise later.” Although we do not know much about the long term effects of the treatment, we do see promising results. 29/30 of participants with sickle cell anemia reported no pain for a year after the treatment. 39/42 of beta-thalassemia no longer needed blood or bone marrow transfusions for a year after it. Sadly, it is expected for the treatment to cost about $2 million per patient. Due to this absurdly high cost, scientists are looking into a technique called haploidentical transplant to treat sickle cell anemia. This technique, which is also used for cancer, involves replacing a patient’s bone marrow with a parent or sibling who shares 50% of their DNA. 88% of patients with this procedure made normal red blood cells 2 years after it. This procedure is promising and much more cost effective; it could be popular in low income countries. Nevertheless, this new technology is extremely exciting and potentially world altering.

A New Step for Fighting Allergies Has Been Taken

Scientists are one step closer to resolving your allergies. New studies have found that certain immune cells are responsible for causing allergic reactions to harmless things such as pollen, peanuts, and dander. Understanding where these allergens come from allows scientists to dive deeper into cures for them.

Depiction of a person suffering from Allergic Rhinitis

How Do Allergies Develop?

Allergies occur when the antibody IgE is released on innocuous proteinsIgE is produced by memory B cells. It is designed to ward off bacterial infections and neutralize toxins. However, sometimes it triggers an immune response to harmless substances. When a person is first exposed to an allergen, they release a large amount of IgE. The next time they are exposed to the allergen, they may have an allergic reaction. Specific memory B cells called MBC2s are responsible for remembering the proteins that spark the allergic reactions. As we learned in AP Biology, when the immune system is triggered, large amounts of responses occur in the body. The body will physically respond with symptoms such as hives, fever, or even anaphylactic shock. These symptoms are in parallel to symptoms of allergic reactions. These symptoms are in an attempt to rid the body of the invader. Inside of the body, the response begins with proteins on macrophages displaying the invader antigen and releases cytokines. T helper cells recognize the antigen and trigger an attack response. T killer cells kill infected cells while B plasma cells secrete antibodies to bind and neutralize the invader. The macrophages then eat and destroy it. Finally, T memory cells prevent reinfection while B memory cells patrol the plasma to prevent reinfection. This entire response occurs to people with allergies when there is a non-threatening pathogen in the system. 

Primary immune response 1

The Studies

Immunologist Joshua Koenig studied 90,000 people with allergies and their B-memory cells. He used RNA sequencing to find the specific memory-B cells, MBC2s, making the antibodies responsible for immune responses against parasitic worms and allergies. In people with peanut allergies, Koenig found an increased amount of MBC2s and an enhanced amount of IgE antibodies. 


In immunologist Maria Curotto de Lafaille’s study, she sampled children with and without allergies. She also found that children with allergies have more MBC2 cells than children without allergies. She found that cells switch from making protective IgE antibodies to allergy causing ones. Before the switch, cells made IgE, but not the protein. The RNA enables the antibody to switch the type of antibody it makes when it encounters an allergen. The signal switch depends on a protein called JAK. Stopping JAK production could prevent memory cells from switching to IgE production in contact with allergens. 


The Future

If scientists can find a way to manage the production of IgEs when in contact with harmless allergens, we could be looking at a potential cure for allergies! Would you participate in a treatment for allergies if it was applicable to you?

Miracle Drug for Drugs?

A fascinating new drug called CSX-1004 may be the cure to the fentanyl epidemic. Scientists who have recently discovered the drug have been conducting experiments on monkeys to fully grasp the effects of the drug before they begin their human trials. If the drug is found effective, there could be a revolution in the fight against drugs.

 Understanding Fentanyl Addiction

Fentanyl is a highly addictive synthetic drug that is nearly 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl binds to the body’s opioid receptors, receptors responsible for pain reduction, emotions, and breathing regulation. Opioid receptors are G-coupled receptors. As we learned in AP Biology, the G protein receptor is first activated by a ligand, triggering the G protein to activate. The activated G protein causes GDP to turn into GTP. Then, the G protein binds with adenylyl cyclase, triggering ATP to become cAMP. The cAMP triggers the activation on Protein Kinase A, finally, triggering a response. In the case of fentanyl, fentanyl is the ligand. Typical responses of the drug include a feeling of euphoria, drowsiness, nausea, respiratory depression, confusion, and unconsciousness. The drug targets parts of the brain that control reward, causing users to take more of the drug. As abuse continues, the brain is no longer able to naturally produce dopamine, the neurotransmitter that binds to the opioid receptors. An addict quickly becomes reliant on drugs to give them the happiness and pain regulation that they once naturally had.

Antibody IgG1 surface


CSX-1004 is an antibody that binds to fentanyl in the blood, stopping a great majority of it from reaching target receptors in the brain. As we also learned in AP Biology, antibodies are part of the humoral response and fight against infections. B-Plasma cells, which patrol the plasma, secretes antibodies. These antibodies bind to and neutralize the pathogen until a macrophage engulfs and destroys an antibody-coated pathogen. In conclusion, if CSX-1004 can bind to and neutralize fentanyl, it can potentially be killed or weakened before reaching receptors in the brain!

The Study

Scientists gathered groups of squirrel monkeys and began by giving them increasing doses of fentanyl over 28 days. They found extreme respiratory conflicts at the higher doses. They then repeated the experiment for another month. This time, they treated the monkeys with one dose of CSX-1004. They found that the dose decreased respiratory harm by 15% at all doses of fentanyl.

Timeline. Drug overdose death rates by sex, United States

The Future

If CSX-1004 is found effective and safe for humans, we could be looking at a decline in fentanyl addiction and deaths. Scientist Andrew Bennet stated that “If we can block the high produced by fentanyl, gradually people will stop using it as they realize it is not doing anything”. Fentanyl has been named the most dangerous illegal drug and was responsible for 28.8% drug related deaths in 2018. Drugs have a higher mortality rate than gunshots and automobile accidents. Does this statistic shock you? This is why drugs like CSX-1004 are so important to be in the works. CSX-1004 could be the key needed to prevent more lives lost at the hands of fentanyl.

COVID Always Spikes in the Winter!

Have you ever wondered why you always catch a virus when it’s cold outside? Perhaps why we have seen spikes in the disease, COVID-19 (caused by the virus SARS-Co-V-2) during the winter months compared to summer? Recent studies have been conducted on why viruses thrive in cold weather. Additionally, researchers have come up with ways to protect yourself during the cold season!

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (50047466123)

How We Catch Viruses

Viruses are caught by breathing in small droplets known as aerosols. As learned in AP Biology, when a virus is first detected, the innate immune system activates. The innate immune system is nonspecific and will attack anything. It consists of barrier defenses such as mucus and saliva to trap pathogens. Then, if a pathogen gets past these barriers, innate internal cellular defense is activated. The mast cells release histamine and macrophages secrete cytokines. Histamine dilated blood vessels to increase capillary permeability, causing the area to swell. The cytokines attract smaller phagocytes called neutrophils that digest pathogens and dead cell debris. The innate immunity response might induce a fever, for higher body temperatures enhance phagocytosis. However, if the virus (ex: SARS-Co-V-2) makes it past this, it will begin to infect the cells. The virus will latch onto the ACE2 receptors of a cell, allowing the viral genetic material to fuse with healthy human cells. The human host cells will then begin to replicate SARS-Co-V-2RNA to create the proteins that make up SARS-Co-V-2.


How Weather and Seasons Impact Viruses

To start, your location matters in regards to catching COVID. Researchers have found that being outside significantly decreases your odds of catching COVID from the SARS-Co-V-2 virus. The outdoors are well-ventilated. Viruses exhaled outside are diluted faster in the vast and clean outdoor air. This is relevant because we tend to be outside more in the summer than the winter. Inside (during cooler months), viruses can build up in the poorly ventilated space: such as schools and office buildings. 

Additionally, humidity plays a large role in the spread of SARS-Co-V-2 and other viruses. The droplets that the virus is in, such as saliva, dry slowly when it is humid. This could kill viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and influenza. However, the dry air of the winter is known to disarm people’s immune systems. Studies have found that dry air can trigger death of the cells lining the airways. These are the cells of the innate immune system. 

Evidence also suggests that the cold itself is a culprit for the spread of SARS-Co-V-2 and other viruses. When a virus is detected, sensor proteins signal the cell to produce bubble like structures called extracellular vesicles. These vesicles act as a sort of diversion for the virus. The virus will attempt to dock to the vesicle rather than the cell. The vesicle’s microRNA will then release in an attempt to kill the virus. Research states that compared to the standard 37° Celsius, cells in 32° Celsius released 42% less vesicles. They also packed 24% less microRNA than the vesicles in warmer temperatures. 

Face Mask used in Coronavirus pandemic COVID-19

How Can I Keep Healthy This Winter? 

While a humidifier may help, it can produce mold and rot. So, professionals are now leaning towards using exhaust fans, or even better, a HEPA filter to filter viruses in the air. Post Pandemic, we know a lot about mask wearing.. Did you notice that you did not contract as many illnesses while wearing a mask?  Well, masks act as shields to protect you from the aerosols an infected person may produce. Additionally, masks keep the nasal area warm and moist, boosting the immune system.

Understanding Human Brain Cells

Cells are the basis for all living things. They provide structure and carry out functions necessary for survival. Recent studies have been conducted on the brain, examining the function of the 3,000+ cells found in the human brain. They found the brain to be extremely complex and have found the following: how brains vary among people and the similarities and differences between humans and primates. 

Animal Cell

Unique Brains

Researchers looked at 100 different cells from different brain regions and found cells called astrocytes that use their genes differently based on where they are located. For example, they can regulate blood flow, but also send mitochondria to neurons. They found staggering similarities between 75 brain cells, but they also found differences. It is widely accepted that eukaryotic cells are broken into different divisions to promote productivity. All human brain cells are similar, having an endomembrane system. The staggering similarity is that all cells will consist of a nucleus, ribosomes, endoplasmic reticulum, golgi apparatus, lysosomes, vacuoles, and mitochondria. This endomembrane system allows parts of the cell to be specialized in a specific function, increasing productivity. Being that cells have different functions, however, cells’ components vary. For example, the brain immune cells, microglia, have unique genes that they use from person to person.

Human Relationship to Primates

Researchers found that cells in the frontal cortex “didn’t differ a lot between primate brains”. While similar, human brains use genes differently from primate brains. Particularly, how cells communicate. It appears that hundreds of genes carry out “human-specific” functions. It is not yet clear as to what exactly these genes carry out. 

The evolution of man- a popular exposition of the principal points of human ontogeny and phylogene (1896) (14594999469)

These new findings are significant for the biological and neurological community, for they add more evidence towards understanding the complexity of the human brain. You may be asking why this matters if there are no definitive answers? Well, we are one step closer to finding an answer. Neuroscience is relatively new. Understanding astrocytes is vital to understanding brain malfunctions. Doctors and scientists will be able to know where the issue is occurring if they understand the anatomy and functions of the brain. Finally, deciphering the similarities and differences between the human brain and primate brain contributes to strengthening Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Given the staggering similarities, the theory seems valid. Scientists noting there are human specific genes suggest why humans are in fact different and more advanced from primates. It is important to stay patient with research for cells, for even small developments are powerful. For example, the Endosymbiont Theory is a dominant theory that also began with seemly small data and breakthroughs.

I find the make up of the human brain fascinating. It’s brilliant how we all share similar brain cells so that we can all function relatively the same. It is truly extraordinary that we all have certain cells in certain spots to conduct different functions. Did you know that simply the location of a cell impacts its entire function? Additionally, the more connections we find between our brains and primate brains, the more likely evolution seems. I am a believer in evolution due to the staggering similarities in our DNA and make up. We share 98.8% of our DNA with chimpanzees! What do you think: did we evolve from apes?

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