Montezuma-Cortez alumni Tyler Daniel strive for excellence in genetic engineering

MCHS alumni Tyler Daniel are working on research into genetic engineering and how it can help treat certain diseases. (Wendy Daniel/Courtesy photo)

The former valedictorian is working on a doctoral degree at Rice University in Texas

Tyler Daniel, who graduated from Montezuma-Cortez High School as valedictorian in 2014, is reaching a new frontier in science.

Daniel is in his sophomore year at Rice University in Houston, Texas where he is working on a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering, working specifically on genetic engineering.

Daniel attended Kemper Elementary School and Montezuma-Cortez Middle and High School. He then attended Colorado State University and earned degrees in chemical and biological engineering and biomedical engineering.

At Rice, she now hopes to help people who can’t be treated by traditional pharmaceutical or medical means.

I came here because I’m working on genetic engineering, in particular, developing tools for treating human diseases through therapies and modifying people’s genes, Daniel said. The rationale behind it is that there are many diseases that people have that pharmaceuticals or medical interventions cannot necessarily cure, and those diseases are based on genetics. They have kind of a genetic predisposition towards it, and there are things that maybe people are born with, and we know they have it, but we can’t fix it. This is really why I decided to start pursuing this field.

Around the time Daniel was in high school, CRISPR/Cas systems, a family of proteins found in organisms such as bacteria, used to break down DNA and play a role in antiviral defense, were first applied to human genome editing. This was the first tool that made the idea of ​​genetic engineering possible.

Daniel said that the acronyms CRISPR/Cas Systems for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated proteins further fueled his interest in the study of genetic engineering. Because it is fairly new, however, it isn’t ready for widespread clinical use in non-life-threatening situations, making the need for research all the more important.

I think being on the research side is the most impactful in making the technology safer and more applicable to general clinical use, Daniel said.

Daniel gave the example of people who suffer from sickle cell disease, an inherited disease found primarily among blacks. A genetic defect in an abnormal, short-lived red blood cell (sickle cell disease) results in an insufficient oxygen supply, which can cause a variety of symptoms including dizziness, fatigue, jaundice, impotence, and stroke.

This is a huge impact on their lives, and blood transfusions and stuff like that can only do so much, Daniel said.

With genetic engineering, Daniel said, scientists are learning how to rewrite a person’s DNA to correct the abnormality that causes anemia. Other genetic diseases mentioned by Daniel were Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other neurological disorders that have genetic components.

He also included atherosclerosis, heart disease and more.

In the example of sickle cell anemia, Daniel said researchers are finding that CRISPR-associated proteins can be given a guide that pinpoints the mutation in someone’s genes. From there, it can hunt throughout the cell after being injected into the body and repair the mutation.

We program it to find a particular piece of DNA that’s damaged in your body, and once it’s programmed and sent into your cell, then it can go in and actually repair it, Daniel said.

She’s only 10, 11, Daniel said. There are so many clinical trials and tons and tons of research going on.

To complete his PhD, Daniel said he must add new scientific information to the scientific community that no one else has done before.

You have to research something no one else has and then publish an article about it, he said.

Daniels’ thesis is on chemically induced dimerization.

Basically, Daniel said, it gets to where these gene-editing proteins in your body aren’t active. And then when you add a small molecular drug, they come together and are active again.

With Daniels’ research it would help with a current problem with CRISPR where the protein modifies things it shouldn’t.

Daniels’ research, which would hopefully turn off the CRISPR protein after it fixes the problem in the body, would prevent it from causing harmful effects by remaining active.

Montezuma-Cortez High School senior Tyler Daniel with one of his bat houses in 2014. (Diary file photo)

It was Cortez Middle School teacher Gary Livick who first piqued Daniels’ interest in DNA during a science class on that topic.

In eighth grade, he was telling us about the human genome project and its completion, and there was some great progress and I thought it was super interesting, Daniel said.

He kind of explained that there’s this sequence of four letters throughout yourself and it’s basically billions of letters long, everything is related to these four letters that are in all of your cells. Anything that is different from someone else is related to this little code in your body, she said.

Ever since that middle school science class, Tyler has said he wanted to be a scientist studying DNA, said his mother, Wendy Daniel.

Daniel also credited former high school math teacher Susan Wisenbaker with sparking his interest in studying engineering.

It made me interested in going into engineering in general and gave me that math background, she said.

Daniel also published a peer-reviewed article in Current Opinion in Biomedical Engineering about his genetic engineering research, particularly in the area of ​​background editing with co-authors Hongzhi Zeng and Emmanuel Osikpa and his advisor Xue Gao. The title of the article is Revolutionizing the Treatment of Genetic Diseases: Recent Technological Advances in Background Editing.

The paper touches on the problem faced by CRISPR/Cas Systems after its conception in 2012, and how all it was able to do was seek out a particular part of your DNA and cut it out.

That might help you with regards to a disease or something if the protein isn’t needed, but the problem is that if you knock out a gene completely, its original function is no longer there, he said.

Daniels’ article focuses on the basic editor a researcher developed in 2016 that changes one letter of a genome to another instead of cutting it out altogether, known as a point mutation.

Those allow for fine control over what you’re doing within the genome, Daniel said. Instead of just cutting, you can actually go in now and fix that mutation.

Daniel emphasized that the support of his family and community helped him get to where he is today.

Having the support of my community, my family and my wife has been very important in my journey to where I am today, Daniel said. Jeremy Yarbrough of Coldstone Creamery and Alex Cudkowicz of Cedar Diagnostics have given me some amazing tools that I use on a daily basis.

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