Scientists and entrepreneurs told about the main achievements of life sciences in 2021 in the Chas News article. Let’s check it.
(Imagine that you read the news headlines in… 20?? – Ecolife.).
“Beijing, Moscow and Minsk were rocked by a wave of mass protests. The Eurasian Union authorities have obliged all citizens to undergo genome sequencing, the results of which will be stored in state databases. You can’t get a job and buy plane tickets without a sequencing certificate. The opposition is convinced that this is another strengthening of control. From now on, a small drop of saliva left on the page of a forbidden book will be able to identify everyone who has read it. However, government news agencies explain that this is only a manifestation of concern – in case of illness, the doctor will be able to prescribe drugs that are best suited to a particular genotype.”
‘Alphabets after the merger with Pfizer announced the cessation of support for Google services. The company will focus entirely on developing the latest drugs. Increasing life expectancy to 120 years posed new challenges to the world. That is why cooperation with pharmaceutical companies in recent years has brought Alphabets the lion’s share of profits.”
“Elon Musk presented the new Tesla. It has no steering wheel, and in general – no buttons; the car can be controlled only telepathically, with the help of a chip built into the brain. For his support, you will have to pay an annual subscription fee of 10% of the cost of the car. Drivers are outraged, but Musk is sure – the novelty will be in demand. A similar thing happened a few decades ago with Cybertruck – at first, everyone was outraged by the cut shapes of the van, but later it became a hit.”
“City Hall has finally found application for the abandoned buildings of the oncology center, which have been empty for more than ten years – since they learned to treat cancer with several injections, which are done in a regular clinic. There will be the latest center for transplantation of artificial organs, which will be printed on 3D printers in the center.”
The above news sounds fantastic. However, this is not exactly science fiction – but rather an assumption about how the five real inventions in medicine and biotechnology made in 2021 can change the world in a few decades. Chas News selected them with the help of researchers and entrepreneurs from the biotech industry.
Participants in the preparation of the article are: Victor Dosenko, Head of the Department of General and Molecular Pathophysiology of the Bogomolets Institute of Physiology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine; Peter Starokadomsky, a researcher at the University of Texas, editor of the scientific journal Frontiers; Eugene Nayshtetik, founder of Lorton Investments.
1) mRNA vaccine against cancer
In June 2021, the German company BioNtech began the second phase of clinical trials of the mRNA vaccine BNT111 against melanoma, one of the most aggressive and dangerous cancers. At an earlier stage of development, BioNtech has several more vaccines to fight various cancers.
The researchers noted that there are several specific proteins on the surface of the cells that make up melanoma that are not found in normal cells. The introduction into the body of genetic material that encodes these proteins activates cellular immunity, which inhibits tumor growth.
The breakthrough that medicine has made in the fight against COVID-19 with mRNA vaccines has opened up the possibility of overcoming other diseases, both infectious and non-infectious, with the help of this technology. After all, in the case of mRNA vaccines, not ready-made proteins are introduced into the body, but the genetic material that encodes them. And mRNA can be literally “printed” just in the laboratory. This does not require large production capacity.
The mRNA vaccine was first tested in mice in 1990. It took scientists another 15 years to overcome the main problems of the technology – namely, the instability of mRNA in the body and the inflammatory reactions caused by its introduction. However, before the pandemic, regulators distrusted the new technology, which hampered its development. As of 2020, there were only three experimental mRNA vaccines: against Ebola, influenza and Toxoplasma gondii (an infection that is dangerous for pregnant women – can cause malformations in the fetus).
More than a billion doses of this type of vaccine are now available worldwide, and we can be sure of their safety and effectiveness. Therefore, we can expect that in the coming years we will see mRNA vaccines against many dangerous diseases. “Immunity against any pathogen can be formed with the use of RNA, any gene can be turned off, silenced, again with RNA,” says Victor Dosenko.
2) Creating a 3D diagram of the human brain and the development of neuroimplants
In April 2021, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink showed a video of a monkey playing ping pong on a computer.
This was made possible by the implantation in her brain of a chip with 1,024 ultra-thin electrodes, which were combined into one cylindrical device with a diameter of 23 mm and a height of 8 mm. Even the most experienced neurosurgeon is unable to handle such thin electrodes, which is why Neuralink is a “robot surgeon”.
Then the electrodes “take the signal” from the neurons, or vice versa – excite them.
Neuralink was founded in 2016, but it was in 2021 that the company was the most successful – teaching the monkey to play ping pong with the power of “thought” and “visualizing” the feeling of a pig when touching various objects with a piglet.
In the coming years, technology will help completely paralyzed people to communicate with the world through the computer. And in the long run, Neuralink is able to return the joy of movement to people with damaged spinal cord. In addition, the implant can be used as an extremely advanced hearing aid that is invisible to the environment.
Neuralink expects that in 2022 it will be allowed to implant a chip in humans. Although in fact here Ilona Maska competitors were ahead. On December 22, a paralyzed Australian who was implanted with a Synchron neurochip posted on Twitter.
However, in the future, neurochips can improve the lives of healthy people. And Elon Musk has no equal in the implementation of innovations in his life.
Because data entry is the slowest step on your computer, instant gadget management will be in high demand. What could be better to call a taxi by force of thought or pay with a glance at the supermarket checkout?!
This is no longer fiction. In the summer of 2021, Harvard scientists in collaboration with Google published a 3D diagram of 1 cubic meter. mm of the human brain. Despite its small size, the diagram contains the location of all 57,000 neurons and 133 million active connections (synapses) between them. “Understanding the structure of the brain opens up crazy prospects for the treatment of neurological and mental illnesses, as well as for the creation of interfaces that connect the human brain with the computer,” says Starokadomsky.
Although the last prospect is not really that simple. Dosenko explains that despite the low trauma of operations claimed by Neuralink, any surgery on the brain is still quite risky. Therefore, it is not a fact that it is possible to go without it. In addition, the very fact of being able to read information from the brain by external devices raises many ethical and legal issues.
3) Creation of Alphabets algorithm AlphaFold, which simulates the structure of proteins to the nearest atom
Lung cancer takes millions of lives every year. Back in 1982, scientists found that one of the main causes of the disease, especially in smokers, was a mutation in one of the genes called k-Ras.
However, they could not invent a drug that would act on the protein that produces the damaged gene for 40 years. This was possible only in 2021. The FDA has approved Lumarkras, an innovative drug for the treatment of lung cancer that acts on proteins produced by the damaged gene.
According to Starokadomsky, the new drug was created by computer simulation (as scientists call this method, in silico, ie “in silicon”, in contrast to traditional in vitro experiments).
Researchers with the help of artificial intelligence very accurately modeled the spatial structure of the harmful protein and used it as a “lock” – selected “keys” to it. That is, they were looking for molecules that would exactly match the structure of the protein and be able to neutralize it.
Using computer simulations is much cheaper and faster than traditional experiments. However, until recently, it was not always possible to use such methods – because computer models of proteins lacked precision.
But soon everything may change. In 2021, the team of DeepMind, one of the divisions of Alphabets (owner of Google), created an AlphaFold algorithm that can predict the structure of proteins with ultra-high accuracy – up to 0.16 nm. This is much higher than any previous modeling method and can be compared to the accuracy of laboratory methods such as electron microscopy or nuclear magnetic resonance. But, again, much cheaper. “The emergence of new methods of computer modeling opens up opportunities to find cures for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and metabolic disorders,” says Starokadomsky.
4) Reducing the cost of sequencing the human genome to $ 600
For decades, scientists have dreamed of deciphering the human genome. After all, seeing the “drawings” on which our body is built, you can find answers to many questions. Both purely ideological – such as what distinguishes us from monkeys, and practical – to understand the root causes of many diseases. So – to approach the invention of new drugs.
An international project to fully study the human genome began in 1990. They performed the titanic work of that time only in 2003. This cost a whopping $ 3 billion.
However, in 2015, two companies, PacBio and Oxford Nanopore, introduced a new genome sequencing technology that greatly simplified the process.
And in 2021, the biotech company Illumina from California announced the start of sales of a set of reagents for complete analysis of the human genome at a price of $ 600. Twice cheaper than the new iPhone.
Although Illumina itself believes that it is still too expensive. The company’s goal is to reduce the cost of genome analysis to $ 100. So that most people in the world can examine their DNA in detail and understand what diseases they are prone to.
Dosenko explains that this possibility will lead to radical changes in medicine – the spread of personalized therapy, when each person will be prescribed treatment, taking into account its “genetic constitution”.
The most famous example of this approach is the health of Angelina Jolie. Back in 2013, when genome research was available only to wealthy people, the actress discovered that she is a carrier of a mutant gene that causes breast and ovarian cancer. So Jolie had these organs removed. A difficult decision. But if the Hollywood star hadn’t gone for it, she probably would have gotten cancer.
“Digitizing the genomes of all mankind is now a viable task, and it will lead to radical changes not only in health care systems, but also in many aspects of society,” said Eugene Nayshtetik, founder of Lorton Investments.
By the way, in this context, it is worth remembering another “breakthrough of the year” – Ribbon Biolabs has announced the development of a revolutionary technology that allows you to print DNA of any length. Naishtetyk believes that this opens up unprecedented prospects for synthetic biology, simply put – the creation of new living things.
5) Application of 3D-bioprinter in clinical practice
In November 2021, the French biotech startup Poietis announced the installation of its bioprinter for 3D printing of fabrics in one of the public hospitals in Marseille. The device can create a leather substitute up to 40 square meters in a few hours. see. That is, artificial leather will be printed directly in the hospital and used during operations. The company hopes to install 85 bioprinters in French hospitals by 2026.
Ioprinting – the creation of substitutes for natural tissues of the body with the help of “in vitro” cells and an artificial framework that connects them into a single whole, appeared in 2003. However, the technology was mostly used only for experiments and spectacular presentations.
Nayshtetik is convinced that Poietis’ breakthrough will significantly intensify competition between bioprinter manufacturers, accelerating the penetration of technology into clinical practice. “More complex projects in this area from Biolife4D, 3D System, Cellink, Matricelf and others are on the way. Printed hearts, artificial lungs, cornea and joints are all no longer attributes of fantasy novels,” explains the businessman.
American scientists consider them absolutely safe for cultivation and consumption. The EU is very wary of them, imposing numerous restrictions on their sale; the opinion of the scientific community through them was divided into two magnetic poles… What we’re talking about? It’s all about cloned organisms.
Let’s get to know more about cloning, reading this article.