It’s hard to imagine how things could possibly get better for life sciences cluster, save for an extended spell of money falling from the sky. Things are clicking for the people who take academic research, raise millions in venture capital, forge partnerships with big pharma companies, and one day, they hope land new products on the market that can improve and extend lives.
So what are the scientific areas and tech advances that people in the local life sciences scene think will bear fruit in the years and decades ahead? These past 20 years have seen biotech innovations are trying to make the world a better place. Here is the list of ten key biotech breakthroughs this year that you must see:
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Biotech Breakthroughs of the Year 2016
When people say “microbiome,” they are describing the millions of bacteria that live on your skin and inside your digestive tract. Future pills might contain “good” bacteria that would get into your gut and multiply overtime to tackle inflammatory bowel diseases or recurrent infections. In the future, we may think of managing our microbiome a bit like gardening. If you don’t plant stuff like perennials or veggies, the weeds will take over.
2. Drought Tolerance
Drought is a huge threat to agricultural productivity. With rising temperatures and limited rainfall, many farmers can see their crops wither. The problem is getting worse as climate change threatens to lengthen and intensify droughts. Fortunately, biotechnology can help farmers cope. Farmers have successfully planted the first-ever biotech drought-tolerant maize in the Corn Belt – a region of the Midwestern United States known for drought.
Plant scientists are now working to make this technology available to farmers around the world. In Africa, where over 300 million people rely on maize as a staple food, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project has made significant steps to bring drought-tolerant technology to East Africa. They hope to plant the biotech maize in 2017, as a recent study from the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated drought-tolerant maize could raise yields by 17% in East Africa during severe droughts in 2050.
3. Herbicide Tolerance
With biotech crops that are tolerant to herbicides, farmers have a powerful tool for fighting weeds. These crops give them the flexibility to choose herbicides with preferred environmental characteristics and to apply them only when needed. They also support no-till farming methods, which reduces the environmental footprint of farming by helping preserve topsoil a vital resource for farmers and reducing carbon dioxide emissions in farming. Herbicide-tolerant crops have been grown since 1996, and today farmers can grow varieties of maize, soybean, cotton, and canola that contain this useful technology.
4. Insect Resistance
The ability to built-in resistance to insects has helped farmers around the world avoid significant crop losses. There are varieties of maize that have been modified to contain an insecticidal protein from a naturally occurring soil microorganism that provides plants protection from corn borer worms. There are also insect-resistant varieties of soybean and cotton, and in 2014, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to approve the commercial planting of insect-resistant brinjal. Researchers estimate that if Bt brinjal were brought to farmers in other countries like India, it could increase yields by 37% and reduce insecticide applications – saving farmers time and money.
5. The aging cure
The pursuit of the drug industry is a fountain of youth, a way to extend lifespans and fend off diseases of aging. Investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into local companies that thought they were on the right track. One should be a little bit skeptical that yet one more company, Navitor Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, raised $23 million last year to control a mechanism inside the cell, chief executive George Vlasuk says, “we believe is critical to a number of diseases of aging,” including type-2 diabetes and obesity.
6. Improved Nutritional Quality
Plant scientists are using biotechnology to develop healthier cooking oils, such as soybean oils, that eliminate trans-fats, increase omega-3s, and ultimately help reduce the risk of heart disease. Biotech foods with improved nutrition content could provide essential nutrition to children, especially during the critical first 1000 days of life, transforming the lives of millions.
For example, a new variety of biotech rice can help reduce the impact of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is responsible for 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and up to two million deaths each year. Golden Rice is fortified with beta-carotene, an organic compound that the body uses to produce vitamin A.
7. Cancer immunotherapy
A healthy immune system can prevent you from catching diseases when you are sitting next to a sick person on the T by attacking the germs invading your body before they can make you sick. The idea behind cancer immunotherapies is to “train” immune system cells to seek and destroy cancer cells. There are companies that are working on immunotherapies for late-stage skin cancer and lung cancer. The Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG last year bought a Cambridge startup, CoStim, which was working in the field.
8. Gene silencing, gene therapy, and gene editing
Lots of diseases are caused by mutated or malfunctioning genes. So what if you could shut off specific genes that are wreaking havoc, or even “rewrite” their biological code to allow them to function normally? One big advance in gene therapy, says Katrine Bosley, chief executive of the Cambridge biotech Editas Medicine, has been figuring out how to deliver a corrected gene to the right place in the body. Recent successes in the gene therapy field by companies like Bluebird Bio Inc. in Cambridge “open the possibility of curing diseases with a single treatment,” says Glenn Batchelder, chairman of the Massachusetts Biotech Council.
9. All things neuro
New approaches to help brain cells eliminate the buildup of proteins essentially take out the trash may slow or stop the advance of many diseases. Problems with the brain, from autism to Alzheimer’s, are now seen as “addressable,” Part of that is due to a better understanding of how the brain works, and more precise and objective ways to measure improvements.
A startup named Tal Medical, raised $14 million this year to develop and test a device for treating depression and bipolar disorder that uses low-intensity pulses. Local companies like Biogen Inc. are pursuing new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease. In diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, one can see protein is piling up in the cell. It’s like the garbage workers went on strike, and the bags are piling up on the sidewalk.”
10. Digital health and medical records
When one is old enough to remember sitting across the desk from a travel agent, you probably remember getting paper airline tickets, too. Think about how digital the travel process has become, from buying tickets online to using a mobile device to navigate a foreign city. Amir Nashat of Polaris Partners, a Boston venture capital firm, says health care is going through that transition, too, albeit slowly. Smartphones, watches, and other wearable devices will collect more data about how we’re feeling, and doctors and hospitals will get smarter about how they use that data.