Team:Austin UTexas/HP/Silver

Silver Medal and Human Practices

Human practices is paramount for researchers. It is our responsibility to ensure that we fully consider the potential benefits, consequences, applications, and ethics of any project we pursue. This project was developed with positive intentions, but in order to responsibly and ethically pursue this goal, we needed to be critical of our approach and seek advice from a variety of experts. We attempted to consider all potential drawbacks and societal benefits of our project and did our best to respond appropriately during our project's development.

Building our Knowledge Base:

From the beginning, we heavily relied on outreach to academic professionals. We were interested in GABA from the start, due to the large number of GABA supplements on the market and the recent flux of research concerning these supplements. However, we did not understand how they could be beneficial because GABA cannot pass, or can only minimally pass (1), the blood-brain barrier. Unaware of the gut-brain axis, or the mechanism in which GABA in the gut could have effects on the central nervous system, we collaborated with researchers in Austin to learn more about topics that we had read about in recent scientific literature. You can read more about what we learned in " Gold Medal and Integrated Practices."

We reached out to Dr. David Weiss and Dr. Qingchun Tong who both work on research concerning GABA. Dr. Tong was particularly helpful, and greatly improved our understanding of GABAergic mechanisms. Further, he gave us valuable insight on novel topics in the scientific community that ultimately became the foundation of our project, namely, the gut-brain axis. We do not have an expertise in metabolism or GABAergic systems, so it was important for us to reach out to those that do have expertise and determine if there was potential for our project to have true applications and positively benefit society. We will not know how effective our proposed probiotic would be without a human trial. However, through discussions with experts in metabolism and GABAergic systems, we received affirmation that there was a very real possibility for our product to significantly benefit our community.

Identifying the Needs in Austin Healthcare:

After choosing our subject of interest, we needed to identify how this could have a positive impact on our community. We had a lot of questions, many of which needed to be answered prior to moving forward with the project.

What are the possible drawbacks of our approach?

Working on any project involving genetic engineering, the ethical component is particularly prevalent. There are many potential criticisms of our approach and we needed to be aware about these issues and work to improve the design in response to them. This list is not exhaustive, but these three points seemed to be the most pertinent drawbacks:

  1. Because we proposed to medicate with probiotics that would proliferate in the gut, the dosage could be problematic. In order to combat this, in the future we propose to regulate dosage with quorum sensing so that overdose will not be an issue.
  2. GMO’s continue to be a topic of interest in the health community. Particularly in Austin, TX there is a strong push against genetic manipulation, so we considered the potential that our project would not thrive in this locality. However, because there is a high prevalence of GM or GMO therapies that are commonly used, such as vaccines and heparins (2), we felt that our therapeutic probiotic may be accepted more in the general public than GM food with no medicinal benefit. Additionally, to address the logical basis for fear of GMO’s, an ample amount of longitudinal trials would need to be performed in order to ensure the safety of our product.
  3. We have proposed a yogurt as our fermentable food. If someone had lactose intolerance, the dairy product may cause more harm than good. To combat this, we have discussed the notion of a different fermentable food, such as kimchi, or producing a yogurt from a non-dairy alternative.

What are the potential applications of this project?

Upon reading the literature on GABA and anxiety, we began to understand how the gut-brain axis was the pathway of these effects. However, upon further research we came across a proposed hypertensive effect of GABA in the gut. We reached out to Heart Hospital of Austin, a local cardiology practice, and spoke with the medical director, Dr. Roger Gammons, about the heart benefits of GABA consumption. His expertise concerning medicinal delivery and hypertension was extremely helpful and he suggested that there were very apparent applications of a project that may expand the current marketplace of different drug delivery methods. More information concerning our discussion with him is written in integrated practices.

Figure 1. Team members Kevin Prabhu and Rachel Johnson outside of the Heart Hospital of Austin.

Is there a product like this that is already in our community?

After correspondence with Micki Marquardt from Helping Hand Home for Children, a local nonprofit that provides shelter and therapeutic care for abused and neglected children, we were informed of the current treatment plans for the children suffering from mental disorders. Psychiatrists try to avoid prescriptions for medicine due to the many negative side effects of barbiturates and benzodiazepines, two of the most common anxiolytics. Additionally, they avoid prescribing excessive medication due to the high rates of addiction for abused and neglected children. There was no mention of a therapeutic probiotic, so this is an innovative approach to treating anxiety in a way that would not have the same side effects as other medications currently in the marketplace. Further, the proposed quorum sensing of our probiotic would combat the possibility of addiction, because the dosage would be regulated in the gut.

Although there was a limited amount of specific information available to us for privacy purposes, this interaction affirmed that this product could be beneficial for organizations treating mental disorders in children. The dosage regulation is an extremely positive feature of a medication, particularly for populations with a high risk of drug addiction.

  1. Boonstra, E., de Kleijn, R., Colzato, L. S., Alkemade, A., Forstmann, B. U., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2015). Neurotransmitters as food supplements: the effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1520.
  2. Australian Government Department of Health. Therapeutic Goods Administration. Guidance 21: Medicines produced by genetic manipulation (accessed: Aug. 20, 2017)