Arxiu d'etiquetes: gene

Pharmacogenetics: a drug for each person

Sometimes, some people say that the medications prescribed by doctors are not good. Can this be true? Not all drugs work for the same population. Keep reading and discover the secrets of pharmacogenetics.


The same that happens with nutrients, happens with drugs. Another objective of personalized medicine is to make us see that not all medicines are for everyone. However, it does not come again because around 1900, the Canadian physician William Osler recognized that there was an intrinsic and specific variability of everyone, so that each one reacts differently to a drug. This is how, years later, we would define pharmacogenetics.

It is important to point out that it is not the same as pharmacogenomics, which studies the molecular and genetic bases of diseases to develop new treatment routes.

First, we need to start at the beginning: what is a drug? Well, a drug is any physicochemical substance that interacts with the body and modifies it, to try to cure, prevent or diagnose a disease. It is important to know that drugs regulate functions that our cells do, but they are not capable of creating new functions.

Apart from knowing if a drug is good or not for a person, you also have to take into account the amount that should be administered. And we still do not know the origin of all diseases, that is, we do not know most of the real molecular and genetic causes of diseases.

The classification of diseases is based mainly on symptoms and signs and not on molecular causes. Sometimes, the same group of pathologies is grouped, but among them there is a very different molecular basis. This means that the therapeutic efficacy is limited and low. Faced with drugs, we can manifest a response, a partial response, that produces no effect or that the effect is toxic (Figure 1).

efectivitat i toxicitat
Figure 1. Drug toxicity. Different colours show possible responses (green: drug not toxic and beneficial; blue: drug not toxic and not beneficial; red: drug toxic but not beneficial; yellow: drug toxic but beneficial) (Source: Mireia Ramos, All You Need is Biology)


Drugs usually make the same journey through our body. When we take a drug, usually through the digestive tract, it is absorbed by our body and goes to the bloodstream. The blood distributes it to the target tissues where it must take effect. In this case we talk about active drug (Figure 2). But this is not always the case, but sometimes it needs to be activated. That’s when we talk about a prodrug, which needs to stop in the liver before it reaches the bloodstream.

Most of the time, the drug we ingest is active and does not need to visit the liver.

active and prodrug
Figure 2. Difference between prodrug and active drug (Source: Agent of Chemistry – Roger Tam)

Once the drug has already gone to the target tissue and has interacted with target cells, drug waste is produced. These wastes continue to circulate in the blood to the liver, which metabolizes them to be expelled through one of the two routes of expulsion: (i) bile and excretion together with the excrement or (ii) purification of the blood by the kidneys and the urine.


A clear example of how according to the polymorphisms of the population there will be different response variability we find in the transporter genes. P glycoprotein is a protein located in the cell membrane, which acts as a pump for the expulsion of xenobiotics to the outside of the cell, that is, all chemical compounds that are not part of the composition of living organisms.

Humans present a polymorphism that has been very studied. Depending on the polymorphism that everyone possesses, the transporter protein will have normal, intermediate or low activity.

In a normal situation, the transporter protein produces a high excretion of the drug. In this case, the person is a carrier of the CC allele (two cytokines). But if you only have one cytosine, combined with one thymine (both are pyrimidine bases), the expression of the gene is not as good, and the expulsion activity is lower, giving an intermediate situation. In contrast, if a person has two thymines (TT), the expression of the P glycoprotein in the cell membrane will be low. This will suppose a smaller activity of the responsible gene and, consequently, greater absorption in blood since the drug is not excreted. This polymorphism, the TT polymorphism, is dangerous for the patient, since it passes a lot of drug to the blood, being toxic for the patient. Therefore, if the patient is TT the dose will have to be lower.

This example shows us that knowing the genome of each individual and how their genetic code acts based on it, we can know if the administration of a drug to an individual will be appropriate or not. And based on this, we can prescribe another medication that is better suited to this person’s genetics.


The applications of these disciplines of precision medicine are many. Among them are optimizing the dose, choosing the right drug, giving a prognosis of the patient, diagnosing them, applying gene therapy, monitoring the progress of a person, developing new drugs and predicting possible adverse responses.

The advances that have taken place in genomics, the design of drugs, therapies and diagnostics for different pathologies, have advanced markedly in recent years, and have given way to the birth of a medicine more adapted to the characteristics of each patient. We are, therefore, on the threshold of a new way of understanding diseases and medicine.

And this occurs at a time when you want to leave behind the world of patients who, in the face of illness or discomfort, are treated and diagnosed in the same way. By routine, they are prescribed the same medications and doses. For this reason, the need has arisen for a scientific alternative that, based on the genetic code, offers to treat the patient individually.


  • Goldstein, DB et al. (2003) Pharmacogenetics goes genomic. Nature Review Genetics 4:937-947
  • Roden, DM et al. (2002) The genetic basis of variability in drug responses. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 1:37-44
  • Wang, L (2010) Pharmacogenomics: a system approach. Syst Biol Med 2:3-22
  • Ramos, M. et al. (2017) El código genético, el secreto de la vida. RBA Libros
  • Main picture: Duke Center for Applied Genomics & Precision Medicine



What is gene therapy?

In the last years we have heard discuss gene therapy and its potential. However, do we know what gene therapy is? In this article, I want to make known this promising tool that can cure some diseases that therapies with conventional drugs cannot it. I discuss approaches of gene therapy and their key aspects, where we find animal models.


A clinical trial is an experimental study realized in patients and healthy subjects with the goal to evaluate the efficiency and/or security of one or various therapeutics procedures and, also, to know the effects produced in the human organism.

Since the first human trial in 1990, gene therapy has generated great expectations in society. After over 20 years, there are a lot of gene therapy protocols have reached the clinical stage.

Before applying gene therapy in humans it is necessary to do preclinical studies; these are in vitro or in vivo investigations before moving to clinical trials with humans. The aim of these is protect humans of toxic effects that the studied drug may have.

An important element in preclinical studies are animal models. First, tests are made with small animals like mice. If they are successful, then tests are made with larger animals, like dogs. Finally, if these studies give good results then they are passed to higher animals: primates or humans.


Gene therapy represents a promising tool to cure some of those diseases that conventional drug therapies cannot. This therapy consists in the transfer of genetic material into cells or tissues to prevent or cure a disease.

Initially gene therapy was established to treat patients with hereditary diseases caused by single gene defects, but now, at present, many gene therapy efforts are also focused on curing polygenic or non-inherited diseases with high prevalence (Video 1).

Video 1. Explanation about what gene therapy is (Source: YouTube)


There are two types of approaches in gene therapy (Figure 1):

  • In vivo gene therapy: introduce a therapeutic gene into a vector which then is administered directly to the patient. The vector will transfer the gene of interest in the target tissue to produce the therapeutic protein.
  • Ex vivo gene therapy: transfer the vector carrying the therapeutic gene into cultured cells from the patient. After, these genetically engineered cells are reintroduced to the patients where they now express the therapeutic protein.
Figure 1. Differences between the two types of approaches in gene therapy (Source: CliniGene – Gene Therapy European Network)


When designing a gene therapy approach there are some key aspects to be considered:


The gene of interest is that which is introduced into the body to counteract the disease. For the one hand, for the diseases are caused by the lost or dysfunction of a single protein, the gene to be transferred is more identifiable, being that only a correct copy of the gene whose dysfunction causes the diseases will be introduced. For the other hand, for the diseases whose origin is more complex the choice of the therapeutic gene may be more difficult and will have to make several studies and know well the disease.


Vehicle by which the gene of interest is transported to the target cells. The perfect vector should be able to transduce target cells without activating an immune response either against itself or the therapeutic gene. But there aren’t a universal vector to treat any disease.


These type of vectors derives from viruses, but this is not a problem because much or all of the viral genes are replaced by the therapeutic gene. This means that the viral vectors do not cause pathogenic disease because the gene was deleted.


These type of vectors does not derive from viruses, but the therapeutic gene is part of a plasmid.


Any cell that has a specific receptor for an antigen or antibody, or hormone or drug… The therapeutic gene must be directed to target cells in specific tissues.


The therapeutic gene must be administered through the most appropriate route. The type of route depends, as like as vector, the target tissue, the organ to manipulate or the disease to be treated.


Are used to find out what happens in a living organism. They are mainly used in research to achieve progress of scientific knowledge, as many basic cellular processes are the same in all animals and can understand what happens to the body when it has a defect; as models for the study of a disease, because humans and animals share many diseases and how to respond to the immune system; to develop and test potential methods of treatment, being an essential part of applying biological research to real medical problems and allowing the identification of new targets for the intervention of the disease; and, finally, to protect the safety of people, animals and environment, researchers have measured the effects of beneficial and harmful compound on an organism, identifying possible problems and determine the dose administration.

Gene therapy represents a promising tool to cure some of those diseases that conventional drug therapies cannot. The availability of animal models is key to preclinical phases because it allows thorough evaluation of safety and efficacy of gene therapy protocols prior to any human clinical trials.

In the near future, gene therapy will be an effective alternative to pharmacological efforts, and enable treatment of many diseases that are refractory or not suitable for pharmacologic treatment alone. Thus, gene therapy is a therapeutic tool that gives us virtually unlimited possibilities to develop better and more effective therapies for previously incurable diseases.



Sequencing the human genome

Genomics is a new science which has had a very important boom in recent years, thanks to advanced technologies of DNA sequencing, advances in bioinformatics and increasingly sophisticated techniques for analysing whole genomes. And I will discuss in this article about whole genomes and their sequencing, mentioning the Human Genome Project, which allowed the sequencing of the human genome.


Sequencing is the set of methods and biochemical techniques aimed at determining the order of nucleotides (A, T, C and G). Its objective is to get in order all nucleotides DNA of an organism.

The first organisms sequenced were two bacteria, Haemophilus influenzae and Mycoplasma genitalium in 1995. One year later, the genome of a fungus was sequenced (Saccharomyces cerevisiae).

From that moment comes the eukaryotic sequencing project: in 1998 Caenorhabditis elegans (nematode) was sequenced, in 2000 Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) and in 2001 the human genome.

But, why we sequenced? In the case of human genome, there is the need to know to help alleviate or prevent diseases.

Some of the organisms sequenced are model organisms, which have:

  • Medical importance: there are pathogens and we know diseases that they can cause.
  • Economic importance: organisms that humans eat, they can improve with the molecular techniques.
  • Study of evolution: in 2007 more than 11 species of Drosophila were sequenced and it tried to understand the evolutionary relationship between their chromosomes. It has also been made in mammals (ENCORE Project).


The human genome has 46 chromosomes, it means 23 chromosome pairs (22 autosomal chromosome pairs and 1 sexual chromosome pair, XX or XY depending if it is female or male).

The size of the human genome sequenced is 32,000Mb, 23 chromosomes plus Y chromosome.

The human genome was obtained from the mixture of human genomes to obtain a representation of all humanity genome.


A paradox is a statement that, despite apparently sound reasoning from true premises, leads to a self-contradictory or a logically unacceptable conclusion. In genomes we find two clear paradoxes.

The first one refers to the C-value, which represents the amount of DNA in the genome. As would be expected, if the organism is larger and more complex, the size of its genome will be bigger. However this is not true because there is not this correlation. It is due because the genome not only contains coding genome and proteins, but also contains repetitive DNA. In addition, the most compacted genomes are found in organisms less complexes.

The second paradox refers to the G-value, which represents the number of genes. There is no correlation between the number of genes and its complexity. A clear example is that in human genome has around 20,000 genes and Arabidopsis thaliana (herbaceous plant) has 25,000 genes. The reason is found in the RNA world, which is more complex and it is related to gene regulation.


The human genome sequencing project has been the most important biomedical research project of the whole history. With a budget of 3 thousand millions of dollars and the participation of an International Public Consortium, which was formed by EEUU, UK, Japan, France, Germany, China and other countries. Its ultimate objective was achieving the complete sequence of the human genome.

It started in 1990, but things get complicated when, in 1999, appeared a private company, Celera Genomics, headed by the scientist Craig J. Venter, who launched the challenge of getting the human sequence in record time, before the expected by the Public Consortium.

At the end it was decided to leave in a draw. The Public Consortium accelerated the process and obtained the draft almost at the same time. On 26th June 2000, in a ceremony at the White House with President Bill Clinton, the two leading representatives of the parties in competition, Craig Venter by Celera and the Public Consortium director, Francis Collins found. It announced the achievement of two drafts of the complete human genome sequence (Video 1). It was a historic moment, as the discovery of the double helix or the first time the man went to the Moon.

Video 1. Human Genome announcement at the White House (Source: YouTube)

The corresponding publications of both sequences did not appear until February 2001. The Public Consortium published its sequence in the journal Nature, while Celera did in Science (Figure 1). Three years later, in 2004, the Consortium published the final or complete version of the human genome.

Figure 1. Covers publications of the human genome sequence draft in Nature and Science magazines in February 2001 (Source: Bioinformática UAB)


The genome of the year 2001 is the reference genome. From here we have entered in the era of personal genomes, with names and surnames. Craig Venter was the first person who sequenced his genome, and the next one was James Watson, one of the discoverers of double helix.

It took 13 years to sequence the reference genome. It took less time to sequence Craig Venter’s genome and only few months for Watson’s genome.


Without going to sequence the entire genome they have been identified disease-causing genes. An exome is not the whole genome, but the part of the genome corresponding to exons.

An example is the case of Nicholas Volker (Figure 2), the first case of genomic medicine. This child had a severe and intractable inflammatory bowel disease of unknown cause. With exome sequencing was allowed to discover a mutation in the XIAP gene on chromosome X, replacing an amino acid functionally important for another. A bone marrow transplant saved the life of the patient.

nicholas volker
Figure 2. Nicholas Volker with his book One in a Billion, which tells his story (Source: Rare & Undiagnosed Network)


  • L. Pray. Eukaryotic genome complexity. Nature Education 2008; 1(1):96
  •  Brown. Genomes 3, 3rd edition (2007)
  • Bioinformática UAB
  • E. A. Worthey et al. Making a definitive diagnosis: Successful clinical application of whole exome sequencing in a child with intractable inflammatory bowel disease. Genetics in Medicine 2011; 13, 255-262
  • Main picture: Noticias InterBusca


Marfan syndrome: how to live of a rare disease

What they have in common the American president Abraham Lincoln, the Greek painter El Greco or the Spanish actor Javier Botet? All of them had or have Marfan syndrome. This is included within rare diseases (less of 1 case per 2,000 inhabitants). In this article I will explain what happens to people who suffer Marfan syndrome, and also one example of people affected and how he has taken advantage of his syndrome.


Marfan syndrome is a rare disease of the connective tissue, it means the tissue that spreads throughout the body and its mission is to join the tissues, fill the gaps between organs…The connective tissue is found in all the body, and the Marfan syndrome’s patients have various problems in multiple organs (bones, eyes, heart, blood vessels, nervous system, skin and lungs).

Its name comes from the French doctor Bernard Jean Antoine Marfan that, in 1896, detected the case of a 5-year-old girl who had disproportionate long arms in relation to her body and finger very thin and long.

It is included within rare diseases because it affects 1 in 5,000 people. A rare disease is one that affects a small number of people compared to the general population.


The clinical features can be grouped mainly in skeletal system, cardiovascular system and ocular system.

The characteristics of the skeletal system are the most visual and among them we find (Figure 1):

  • Dolichostenomelia: disproportionality long extremities in comparison with the length of the trunk. It implies that people are taller than would be expected from their genetic background.
  • Arachnodactyly: thin and long fingers, like spider’s legs.
  • A high, arched palate and crowded teeth.
  • Scoliosis: an abnormally curved spine (S or C).
  • A breastbone that protrudes outward (pectus carinatum) or dips inward (pectus excavatum).
fig caract
Figure 1. A Marfan syndrome’s boy, where we can see pectus excavatum, dolichostenomelia and arachnodactyly (Source: National Marfan Foundation)

The features of cardiovascular system are the main source of morbidity and early mortality. Dilatation of aortic artery is the most common and serious, but also we find tear and rupture of the aorta, mitral or tricuspid valve prolapse…

Finally, within ocular system we have ectopia lentis (a displacement or malposition of the eye’s crystalline lens from its normal location) or myopia. There is also a high risk of retinal detachment, glaucoma and early onset of cataracts.


Marfan syndrome is caused by a change in the gene that controls how the body makes fibrillin (FBN1), an essential component of connective tissue that contributes to its strength and elasticity. This gene is located in chromosome 15 and the severity of the disease depends on the affected part. It means that there aren’t two identical types of Marfan. There are some people who have physical traits more pronounced, and this facilitates the diagnosis. But there are other people that who do not show outward signs.

It has an autosomal dominant inheritance; it means that an altered allele is dominant over the normal allele and it only needs a copy for expressing the disease. It appears in all generations and a child of an affected parent has a 50% probability of suffering this syndrome. However, it can also occur by de novo mutations in the gene FBN1 (spontaneous mutations). The probability of these mutations is low and it is presented in 25% of all cases of Marfan syndrome.


As in most rare diseases there is no treatment, but it can alleviate pain and symptoms caused by the syndrome.

Complications have to anticipate and prevent. The treatment is to act on the cardiovascular effects, mainly to avoid the risk of dilating the aorta.

Doctors do regular cardiological tests, repair or replace large vessels, replace of heart valve, do rehabilitation and orthopedic tests to minimize scoliosis and avoid contact sport.


Throughout history many famous personalities have suffered Marfan syndrome. The tendency of painting elongated humans of Dómenikos Theotokópoulos “El Greco” was due to Marfan syndrome. But it is not the only case known, the musician Niccolò Paganini or the member of the band The Ramones, Joe Ramone, also had it.

Depending on the genetic disease that people suffer, it can be difficult to live with it. But there are some people who have managed to take advantage of it.

This is the case of the Spanish actor Javier Botet. He is known for his role as the Medeiros’ girl in Rec (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza) or mom in Mamá (Andrés Muschietti), among others. His case is complicated, because he has undergone surgery five times. He has taken advantage of his appearance and physical characteristics to characterize diabolic characters (Video 1, not suitable for sensitive people!).

Video 1. Movement test of Javier Botet in Mamá (Source: YouTube)

The example of this guy shows us that we must always see the glass half full and turn the situation around.



How is genetic engineering done in plants?

For years, by crossing, scientists have achieved plants with a desired characteristic after many generations. Biotechnology accelerates this process and allows to catch only the desired genes from a plant, achieving the expected results in only one generation. Genetic engineering allows us to do all this. In this article I will explain what it is and how does it work.


Genetic engineering is a branch of biotechnology that consists in modifying hereditary characteristics of an organism by altering its genetic material. Usually it is used to get that certain microorganisms, such as bacteria or viruses, increase the synthesis of compounds, form new compounds or adapt to different environment.

It is a safer and more efficient tool for improving species than traditional methods (crossing) as it eliminates much of the randomness. On the other hand, modern biotechnology also becomes a new technology that has the power to modify the attributes of living organisms by introducing genetic material prepared in vitro.

It could be defined as the set of methodologies to transfer genes from one organism to another and express them (to produce proteins for which these genes encode) in different organisms of the original organism. DNA which combines fragments of different organisms is called recombinant DNA. Consequently, genetic engineering’s techniques are called recombinant DNA techniques.

Currently there are more plant organisms genetically modified than animal organisms. For this reason I will explain genetic engineering based on plants.


This methodology has 3 key advantages compared with traditional methods of genetic improvement based on hybridization:

  • The genes could come from any specie (for example a bacteria’s gene can be incorporated in soy‘s genome).
  • At genetically improved plant you may introduce a single new gene preserving the remaining genes from the original plant to their offspring.
  • This modification process delays less the deadlines than improvement by crossbreeding.

With this way you can modify properties of plants more broadly, more accurate and faster.

In traditional crossing it generates a hybrid which combines randomly genes of both parental organisms, including the gene of interest encoding the desired trait. In contrast, biotechnology techniques only pass one or few genes which encode a specific trait known. The new plant has all the original genes of the plant and an introduced gene accurately and directed (Figure 1).

Figure 1. (A) Traditional method where, by crossing, a new variety is obtained. This carries the gene of interest (red), but also another genes randomly. (B) With genetic engineering we obtain a new variety of commercial plant with the gene of interest (red) of any other species (Source: Mireia Ramos, All You Need is Biology)


Obtaining a transgenic organism through genetic engineering techniques involves the participation of an organism who gives the gene of interest and a receptor organism who will express the desired quality. The steps and the process techniques are:



This technique is to remove the expression of a gene, replacing it with a mutated version of itself, this being a non-functional copy. It allows the gene is not expressed.


It is the opposite of the knock out process. A gene is replaced by a modified version of itself, which produces a variation in the resulting function of it.

In medicine, the knock in technique has been used as a strategy to replace or mutate genes that cause diseases such as Huntington’s chorea, in order to create a successful therapy.


Firstly, you have to check the characteristic of interest comes from a gene, as this will be easier to transfer to a living organism that does not.


It is a complex process, but outline the steps are the following:

  • Extract DNA
  • Find a gene among the genes of this DNA
  • Sequence it
  • Build the recombinant vector

The DNA of interest is inserted into a plasmid, a circular DNA molecule with autonomous replication. The plasmids of bacterial origin are the most used (Video 1).

Video 1. “Clonación de un gen en un plásmido vector”. Explaining the use of plasmids as a vector in the process of cloning (Source: YouTube)

The development of these techniques was possible by the discovery of restriction enzymes. These enzymes recognize specific sequences and cut the DNA by these points. The generated ends can be sealed with ligase enzyme and to obtain a new DNA molecule, it called recombinant DNA (Figure 2).

Figure 2. (1) Plasmid’s DNA (2) DNA from another living organism (3a, 3b) The restriction enzyme cuts DNA (4) The restriction enzyme recognizes AATT sequence and cuts between A and T nucleotides (5) The two DNAs are contacted with the purpose of forming recombinant molecules (6) A ligase enzyme joins the DNA ends (Source: GeoPaloma)


If we know the gene sequence we can compare this sequence with known gene sequence through bioinformatics, provided to determine which gene looks and assign a possible function. So when we have predicted the function of cloned gene we confirm it in vivo, usually transferring it to a model organism.


We can add (promoter, introns…) or mutate sequences inside the encoding region.


When we have finished the gene building with the desired gene and the promoter, the recombinant DNA is inserted into the cells of the living organism that we want to modify.


When we already have the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) it is analysed from the molecular and biological point. In the molecular analysis it must demonstrate if you have one or more copies of the transgene or how and what tissues the gene is expressed. In the biological analysis it looks if it achieves the objective for which it was designed.