2022 was a big year for science from new views of the cosmos thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope to breakthroughs in cold fusion! For our last post of the year, we’re rounding up the big biotech discoveries and accomplishments of the last 365 days.
- CRISPR tackles new cancers in a pioneering clinical trial. CRISPR, a technology for precise gene editing, has already been approved for treating certain blood and lymph node cancers. However, the technology has proven less effective against most tumor cancers. One reason for this is that many tumors have highly specific surface proteins. This means that a doctor can’t just select a common breast cancer gene to engineer into a cell that can then recognize and fight the tumor. However, researchers at PACT Pharma, UC Davis, UCLA, Cornell, and the Institute for Systems Biology have developed a new personalized medicine system that can identify, design, and then program into T-cells receptor proteins that are specific to a patient’s tumor. When the reprogrammed T-cells are introduced into the patient it gives their immune system the precise ID instructions it needs to find and fight the cancer. The preliminary but promising clinical trial results were published this November in Nature.
- Bioprinting turns regenerative medicine on its ear. Last March a women born with a severely misshapen right ear received a 3D printed ear implant made from her own living cells. 3D printing already plays a huge role in creating customized prosthetics but usually they’re plastic. However, the company (3DBio Therapeutics) has taken this to the next level by extracting cells from the patient, culturing them in a specialized system, mixing them with a collagen based ‘bioink’, and then printing the cells into a living organ. In this case an ear was designed to match the women’s left ear. The surgery represents the first of 11 surgeries in a small clinical trial. Read more about this first surgery and the technology here.
- Scientists raise video game playing brain cells on a petri dish. In the December issue of Neuron, a team of scientists described how they grew a collection of 800,000 brain cells on a “DishBrain” system. This system was then linked to the classic video game Pong and the cells were fed information about which side the ball was on and how far it was from the paddle. The cells responded with varying levels of electrical activity that could be translated to paddle movements. While the “BrainDish” wouldn’t win any Pong tournaments, its success was higher than that predicted by random chance. In addition, the cells expended less activity as the game continued but more when the game restarted. Such results show that the cells were able to take in information from the environment, process it, and respond to it in real time which indicates learning and what’s more learning without being taught! Describing the results Dr. Kagan said “We have to see this new technology very much like the nascent computer industry, when the first transistors were janky prototypes, not very reliable – but after years of dedicated research, they led to huge technological marvels across the world.” He added that the team was working closely with bioethicists as the work raises important questions about consciousness.
- Enzymes help create the first carbon negative molecule factory. Biotechnology is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, but many innovations are still in a protype stage with the challenges of scaling up still in their future. Not Solugen’s Bioforge! This factory is up and running in Houston, TX and making a big profit by competitively making great products that are saving the earth. How? By using AI engineered enzymes to produce chemicals from corn syrup and water in a highly efficient reactor. The process has a much higher yield, much lower energy requirement, and a lower heat and waste release than traditional fermentation and petrochemical production methods. Currently the company produces four chemicals but has 17 more in development. Look for more to come as the company builds two additional plants this year!
- Biotech Gets a Boost from the White House. While not a discovery the passage of the executive order “Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy” represents a big breakthrough that promises to help the US’s large and highly competitive bioeconomy stay that way. The act focuses on strengthening supply chains, addressing health and climate change challenges, investing in biomanufacturing and biotechnology, and creating a sustainable biotech workforce. To that aim it pledges two billion dollars across several agencies including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). It also creates the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative to help coordinate policies and regulations across agencies.