Scientists Change A Single Letter In DNA, Enhancing Production Of Hemoglobin By Activating A Dormant Gene

Scientists have successfully altered human DNA to switch on a dormant gene that allows cells to produce more hemoglobin.

Australian scientists managed to recode human DNA, thereby paving the way for radical new treatments that are unheard of before. Scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) changed a single letter of DNA in human red blood cells and coaxed them to produce more oxygen-carrying hemoglobin.

What’s even more surprising about the technique is that the scientists have managed to activate a naturally occurring gene that, for a biological reason, lay dormant after birth. Though the scientists are hopeful the technique will lead to new treatments for sickle cell anemia and other life-threatening blood disorders, they might have opened the door for optimizing humans with selective gene manipulation.

The method is limited to lab conditions, but as the researchers have simply switched on a genetic variation that already exists in nature, study leader and Dean of Science at UNSW, Merlin Crossley, strongly feels that the radical new approach should be absolutely safe to use on humans. However, he cautions that “more research is needed before it can be tested in people as a possible cure for serious blood diseases.”

Nonetheless, even in its current iteration, the technique will surely help tremendously those who have been battling sickle cell anemia that they have unfortunately acquired from their parents.

The science behind the procedure is rather simple. Throughout our lives, we produce two different kinds of hemoglobin: fetal hemoglobin — which is able to quickly suck up oxygen from our mothers’ blood — and adult hemoglobin. Those who have complications with the latter aren’t able to produce enough hemoglobin, which has a degenerative effect on the bodies as well as severe restrictions on the quality of life.

Scientists managed to keep the gene responsible for fetal hemoglobin switched on, which normally switches off after birth. Scientists used genome-editing proteins known as TALENs, which cut a gene at a specific point and then drop off the desired piece of DNA to be inserted, to “patch” the DNA, added Crossley.

“We exploited this effect. When our genome editing protein cuts the DNA, the cell quickly replaces it with the donor DNA that we have also provided.”

The new technique is quite a long way off from mainstream application, but the mere ability to switch off and on natural genes and manipulating DNA for altering the body’s processes has limitless potential.

[Image Credit | Live Science]