Vanilla! While perhaps not the most impressive flavor on the market, it has stood the test of time.
It is still steadfastly in place in our desserts and ice cream, despite an unending stream of new and exciting flavors making the rounds. Notwithstanding how boring vanilla may seem, it would be wrong of you to assume it didn’t have any redeeming qualities beyond its consistent role as an ice cream flavoring.
Recently, vanilla was found to be a potential new treatment for sickle cell anemia, a group of disorders that cause the body to produce abnormally-shaped red blood cells. This disease isn’t on everyone’s radar, but for people who suffer from it, it is a painful and lifelong affliction. In the majority of cases, there is no cure (except for bone marrow or stem cell transplant), and sufferers have a significantly reduced lifespan.
Sickle cell anemia, or sickle cell disease, is an inherited disease that develops only when both parents pass along an abnormal hemoglobin gene. A child who carries both these abnormal genes will develop the disease, which affects their red blood cell shape and function.
Sickle cell disease has a few variations, characterized by different combinations of the problem genes, but the most common is called sickle cell anemia. It is named sickle cell because of the shape of the affected blood cells. A normal, healthy red blood cell is a round disk-like shape. However, if it has been infected with problematic hemoglobin, it will shrivel up into an elongated crescent (or sickle) shape.
A normal blood cell will carry oxygen throughout the body, and its disc shape allows it to be flexible enough to fit through even the smallest of blood vessels. However, an abnormal sickle-shaped cell becomes extremely rigid, preventing it from moving freely, and it often becomes stuck to vessel walls, essentially clogging the circulatory system.
Sickle cell disease symptoms can be excruciating and include stroke, anemia, and infections. There are also sudden onset episodes called pain crises. These episodes often are less frequent during childhood, but eventually progress in length and severity as people age. Due to restricted blood flow, and therefore movement of oxygen, individuals with this disease typically have reduced organ function. It can target the spleen, heart, liver, reproductive organs, and lungs to name a few things.
Only limited treatment options are available for those suffering from sickle cell disease. They include an extremely invasive procedure called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Stem cell transplantation is not a viable or safe option for older adults and, even in younger people, there is often not an available genetic match. Most people remain undiagnosed until their adulthood, and continue suffering frequent, painful episodes until death. Unfortunately, death comes much earlier to those who suffer from this disease, typically between the ages of 40-60.
In 2004, a few scientists made an incredible breakthrough in the use of vanilla to treat sickle cell disease. Not only did the researchers alter vanilla in a way that suddenly made it usable by the human body, but their vanilla compound prolonged the lifespan of lab animals. The positive results were published in the British Journal of Haematology by a research team led by hematologist Dr. Toshio Asakura, M.D., Ph.D.
In the study, researchers tested a new substance derived from vanilla called MX-1520. While the flavor compound in vanilla, called vanillin, long has been known to prevent sickle cell anemia from affecting red blood cells, at least in vitro, it was never an appropriate option for in vitro study. This is because once consumed vanillin isn’t able to hold up against the rough and tumble processing of the digestive tract. However, MX-1520 is a pro-drug, or a substance that, once eaten, develops active medicinal qualities within the body. Essentially, MX-1520 turns into vanillin once processed by the gastrointestinal system.
The researchers used laboratory mice that carried abnormal human hemoglobins, which behave similar to sickle blood cells in humans. When the mice were given MX-1520, researchers discovered the vast majority of it became the medicinally active vanillin compound within the animal’s body. This vanillin then was able to function much as it had during the test tube trials performed years before. It was found to interact with the abnormal hemoglobin cells to prevent the creation of sickle red blood cells.
Vanillin not only relieved the symptoms experienced by the mice (pain, discomfort) but also prolonged their lifespan by as much as five-fold by preventing the red blood cells from forming into a sickle shape. There is only minimal understanding of how vanillin acts as an antisickling agent, however some research indicates it may shift the oxygen equilibrium within the bloodstream, and thus prevent polymer formation. Research is ongoing to confirm these theories.
This study has opened the door to continued research into using MX-1520 as a possible drug alternative for sickle cell treatment. Based on the in vitro results published by Dr. Asakura and his team, vanillin could offer some serious relief to those who are unable to benefit from the current treatments. Unfortunately, people cannot just eat more vanilla, because natural vanilla quickly breaks down within our digestive tracts. But given a little bit of time, and a little bit of research done on human patients, vanillin might be making its way out of our ice cream bowls and into the medicinal world faster than we expect.