Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @fuchswriter.
News about COVID-19 continues to relentlessly dominate as Omicron surges around the globe. Yet somehow, during the pandemic’s exhausting twists and turns, progress in other areas of health and biotech has marched on.
In some cases, these innovations have occurred despite a broad reallocation of resources to address the COVID crisis. For other breakthroughs, COVID served as the forcing function, pushing scientists and medical providers to rethink key aspects of healthcare, including how cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases are studied, diagnosed and treated. Regardless of why they happened, many of these advances didn’t make the headlines of major media outlets, even when they represented turning points in overcoming our toughest health challenges.
If it bleeds, it leads—and many disturbing stories, such as COVID surges, deserve top billing. Too often, though, mainstream media’s parallel strategy seems to be: if it innovates, it fades to the background. But our breakthroughs are just as critical to understanding the state of the world as our setbacks. I asked six pragmatic yet forward-thinking experts on health and biotech for their perspectives on the most important, but under-appreciated, breakthrough of 2021.
Their descriptions, below, were lightly edited by Leaps.org for style and format.
New Alzheimer's Therapies
Mary Carrillo, Chief Science Officer at the Alzheimer’s Association
One of the biggest health stories of 2021 was the FDA’s accelerated approval of aducanumab, the first drug that treats the underlying biology of Alzheimer’s, not just the symptoms. But, Alzheimer’s is a complex disease and will likely need multiple treatment strategies that target various aspects of the disease. It’s been exciting to see many of these types of therapies advance in 2021.
Following the FDA action in June, we saw renewed excitement in this class of disease-modifying drugs that target beta-amyloid, a protein that accumulates in the brain and leads to brain cell death. This class includes drugs from Eli Lilly (donanemab), Eisai (lecanemab) and Roche (gantenerumab), all of which received Breakthrough Designation by the FDA in 2021, advancing the drugs more quickly through the approval process.
We’ve also seen treatments advance that target other hallmarks of Alzheimer’s this year. We heard topline results from a phase 2 trial of semorinemab, a drug that targets tau tangles, a toxic protein that destroys neurons in the Alzheimer’s brain. Plus, strategies targeting neuroinflammation, protecting brain cells, and reducing vascular contributions to dementia – all funded through the Alzheimer's Association Part the Cloud program – advanced into clinical trials.
The future of Alzheimer’s treatment will likely be combination therapy, including drug therapies and healthy lifestyle changes, similar to how we treat heart disease. Washington University announced they will be testing a combination of both anti-amyloid and anti-tau drugs in a first-of-its-kind clinical trial, with funding from the Alzheimer’s Association.
Olivier Elemento, Director of the Caryl and Israel Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at Cornell University
AlphaFold is an artificial intelligence system designed by Google’s DeepMind that opens the door to understanding the three-dimensional structures and functions of proteins, the building blocks that make up almost half of our bodies' dry weight. In 2021, Google made AlphaFold available for free and since then, researchers have used it to drive greater understanding of how proteins interact. This is a foundational event in the field of biotech.
It’s going to take time for the benefits from AlphaFold to transpire, but once we know the 3-D structures of proteins that cause various diseases, it will be much easier to design new drugs that can bind to these proteins and change their activity. Prior to AlphaFold, scientists had identified the 3-D structure of just 17 percent of about 20,000 proteins in the body, partly because mapping the structures was extremely difficult and expensive. Thanks to AlphaFold, we’ve now jumped to knowing – with at least some degree of certainty – the protein structures of 98.5 percent of the proteome.
For example, kinases are a class of proteins that modify other proteins and are often aberrantly active in cancer due to DNA mutations. Some of the earliest targeted therapies for cancer were ones that block kinases but, before AlphaFold, we had only a premature understanding of a few hundred kinases. We can now determine the structures of all 1,500 kinases. This opens up a universe of drug targets we didn’t have before.
Additional progress has been made this year toward potentially using AlphaFold to develop blockers of certain protein receptors that contribute to psychiatric illnesses and other neurological diseases. And in July, scientists used AlphaFold to map the dimensions of a bacterial protein that may be key to countering antibiotic resistance. Another discovery in May could be essential to finding treatments for COVID-19. Ongoing research is using AlphaFold principles to create entirely new proteins from scratch that could have therapeutic uses. The AlphaFold revolution is just beginning.
Virtual First Care
Jennifer Goldsack, CEO of Digital Medicine Society
Digital Medicine Society
Imagine a new paradigm of healthcare defined by how good we are at keeping people healthy and out of the clinic, not how good we are at offering services to a sick person at the clinic. That is the promise of virtual-first care, or V1C, what I consider to be the greatest, and most underappreciated, advance that occurred in medicine this year.
V1C is defined as medical care accessed through digital interactions where possible, guided by a clinician, and integrated into a person’s everyday life. This type of care includes spit kits mailed for laboratory tests and replacing in-person exams with biometric sensors. It’s built around the patient, not the clinic, and provides us with the opportunity to fundamentally reimagine what good healthcare looks like.
V1C flew under the radar in 2021, eclipsed by the ongoing debate about the value of telehealth more broadly as we emerge from the pandemic. However, the growth in the number of specialty and primary care virtual-first providers has been matched only by the number of national health plans offering virtual-first plans. Our own virtual-first community, IMPACT, has tripled in size, mirroring the rapid growth of the field driven by patient demand for care on their terms.
V1C differs from the ‘bolt on’ approach of video visits as an add-on to traditional visit-based, episodic care. V1C takes a much more holistic approach; it allows individuals to initiate care at any time in any place, recognizing that healthcare needs extend beyond 9-5. It matches the care setting with each individual’s clinical needs and personal preferences, advancing a thorough, evidence-based, safe practice while protecting privacy and recognizing that patients’ expectations have changed following the pandemic. V1C puts the promise of digital health into practice. This is the blueprint for what good healthcare looks like in the digital era.
Digital Clinical Trials
Craig Lipset, Founder of Clinical Innovation Partners and former Head of Clinical Innovation at Pfizer
In 2021, a number of digital- and data-enabled approaches have sustained decentralized clinical trials around the world for many different disease types. Pharma companies and clinical researchers are enthusiastic about this development for good reason. Throughout the pandemic, these decentralized trials have allowed patients to continue in studies with a reduced need for site visits, without compromising their safety or data quality.
Risk-based monitoring was deployed using data and thoughtful algorithms to identify quality and safety issues without relying entirely on human monitors visiting research sites. Some trials used digital measures to ensure high quality data on target health outcomes that could be captured in ways that made the participants’ physical location irrelevant. More than three-quarters of research organizations, such as pharma and biotech, have accelerated their decentralized clinical trial strategies. Before COVID-19, 72 percent of trial sites “rarely or never” used telemedicine for trial participants; during COVID, 64 percent “sometimes, often or always” do.
While the research community does appreciate the tremendous hope and promise brought by these innovations, perhaps what has been under-appreciated is the culture shift toward thoughtful risk-taking and a willingness to embrace and adopt clinical trial innovations. These solutions existed before COVID, but the pandemic shifted the perception of risks versus benefits involved in these trials. If there is one breakthrough that is perhaps under-appreciated in life sciences clinical research today, it’s the power of this new culture of willingness and receptivity to outlast the pandemic. Perhaps the greatest loss to the research ecosystem would be if we lose the momentum with recent trial innovations and must wait for another global pandemic in order to see it again.
Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Executive Publisher of the Science family of journals
American Association for the Advancement of Science
As our understanding of basic biology has grown, we are fast approaching an era where it will be possible to design and direct biological machinery to create treatments, medicine, and materials. 2021 saw many breakthroughs in this area, three of which are listed below.
The understanding of the human microbiome is growing as is our ability to modify it. One example is the movement toward the notion of the “bug as the drug.” In June, scientists at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital published a paper showing that they had genetically engineered yeast – using CRISPR/Cas9 – to sense and treat inflammation in the body to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in mice. This approach could potentially be used to address issues with your microbiome to treat other chronic conditions.
Another way in which we saw the application of basic biology discoveries to real world problems in 2021 is through groundbreaking research on synthetic biology. Several institutions and companies are pursuing this path. Ginkgo Bioworks, valued at $15 billion, already claims to engineer cells with assembly-line efficiency. Imagine the possibilities of programming cells and tissue to perform chemistry for the manufacturing process, inspired by the way your body does chemistry. That could mean cleaner, more controllable, and affordable ways to manufacture food, therapeutics, and other materials in a factory-like setting.
A final example: consider the possibility of leveraging the mechanics of your own body to deliver proteins as treatments, vaccines, and more. In 2021, several scientists accelerated research to apply the mRNA technology underlying COVID-19 vaccines to make and replace proteins that, when they’re missing or don’t work, cause rare conditions such as cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis.
These applications of basic biology to solve real world problems are exciting on their own, but their convergence with incredible advances in computing, materials, and drug delivery hold the promise of game-changing progress in health care and beyond.
David R. Walt, Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Wyss Institute at Harvard University
2021 brought the first real hope for identifying biomarkers that can predict neurodegenerative disease. Multiple biomarkers (which are measurable indicators of the presence or severity of disease) were identified that can diagnose disease and that correlate with disease progression. Some of these biomarkers were detected in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) but others were measured directly in blood by examining precursors of protein fibers.
The blood-brain barrier prevents many biomolecules from both exiting and entering the brain, so it has been a longstanding challenge to detect and identify biomarkers that signal changes in brain chemistry due to neurodegenerative disease. With the advent of omics-based approaches (an emerging field that encompasses genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics), coupled with new ultrasensitive analytical methods, researchers are beginning to identify informative brain biomarkers. Such biomarkers portend our ability to detect earlier stages of disease when therapeutic intervention could be effective at halting progression.
In addition, these biomarkers should enable drug developers to monitor the efficacy of candidate drugs in the blood of participants enrolled in clinical trials aimed at slowing neurodegeneration. These biomarkers begin to move us away from relying on cognitive performance indicators and imaging—methods that do not directly measure the underlying biology of neurodegenerative disease. The identity of these biomarkers may also provide researchers with clues about the causes of neurodegenerative disease, which can serve as new targets for drug intervention.
In the 1990s, a mysterious virus spread throughout the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Lab—or that’s what the scientists who worked there thought. More of them rubbed their aching forearms and massaged their cricked necks as new computers were introduced to the AI Lab on a floor-by-floor basis. They realized their musculoskeletal issues coincided with the arrival of these new computers—some of which were mounted high up on lab benches in awkward positions—and the hours spent typing on them.
Today, these injuries have become more common in a society awash with smart devices, sleek computers, and other gadgets. And we don’t just get hurt from typing on desktop computers; we’re massaging our sore wrists from hours of texting and Facetiming on phones, especially as they get bigger in size.
In 2007, the first iPhone measured 3.5-inches diagonally, a measurement known as the display size. That’s been nearly doubled by the newest iPhone 13 Pro, which has a 6.7-inch display. Other phones, too, like the Google Pixel 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S22, have bigger screens than their predecessors. Physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons have had to come up with names for a variety of new conditions: selfie elbow, tech neck, texting thumb. Orthopedic surgeon Sonya Sloan says she sees selfie elbow in younger kids and in women more often than men. She hears complaints related to technology once or twice a day.
The addictive quality of smartphones and social media means that people spend more time on their devices, which exacerbates injuries. According to Statista, 68 percent of those surveyed spent over three hours a day on their phone, and almost half spent five to six hours a day. Another report showed that people dedicate a third of their day to checking their phones, while the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University has found that bigger screens, ideal for entertainment purposes, immerse their users more than smaller screens. Oversized screens also provide easier navigation and more space for those with bigger hands or trouble seeing.
But others with conditions like arthritis can benefit from smaller phones. In March of 2016, Apple released the iPhone SE with a display size of 4.7 inches—an inch smaller than the iPhone 7, released that September. Apple has since come out with two more versions of the diminutive iPhone SE, one in 2020 and another in 2022.
These devices are now an inextricable part of our lives. So where does the burden of responsibility lie? Is it with consumers to adjust body positioning, get ergonomic workstations, and change habits to abate tech-related pain? Or should tech companies be held accountable?
Kavin Senapathy, a freelance science journalist, has the Google Pixel 6. She was drawn to the phone because Google marketed the Pixel 6’s camera as better at capturing different skin tones. But this phone boasts one of the largest display sizes on the market: 6.4 inches.
Senapathy was diagnosed with carpal and cubital tunnel syndromes in 2017 and fibromyalgia in 2019. She has had to create a curated ergonomic workplace setup, otherwise her wrists and hands get weak and tingly, and she’s had to adjust how she holds her phone to prevent pain flares.
Recently, Senapathy underwent an electromyography, or an EMG, in which doctors insert electrodes into muscles to measure their electrical activity. The electrical response of the muscles tells doctors whether the nerve cells and muscles are successfully communicating. Depending on her results, steroid shots and even surgery might be required. Senapathy wants to stick with her Pixel 6, but the pain she’s experiencing may push her to buy a smaller phone. Unfortunately, options for these modestly sized phones are more limited.
These devices are now an inextricable part of our lives. So where does the burden of responsibility lie? Is it with consumers like Senapathy to adjust body positioning, get ergonomic workstations, and change habits to abate tech-related pain? Or should tech companies be held accountable for creating addictive devices that lead to musculoskeletal injury?
Kavin Senapathy, a freelance journalist, bought the Google Pixel 6 because of its high-quality camera, but she’s had to adjust how she holds the oversized phone to prevent pain flares.
A one-size-fits-all mentality for smartphones will continue to lead to injuries because every user has different wants and needs. S. Shyam Sundar, the founder of Penn State’s lab on media effects and a communications professor, says the needs for mobility and portability conflict with the desire for greater visibility. “The best thing a company can do is offer different sizes,” he says.
Joanna Bryson, an AI ethics expert and professor at The Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany, echoed these sentiments. “A lot of the lack of choice we see comes from the fact that the markets have consolidated so much,” she says. “We want to make sure there’s sufficient diversity [of products].”
Consumers can still maintain some control despite the ubiquity of tech. Sloan, the orthopedic surgeon, has to pester her son to change his body positioning when using his tablet. Our heads get heavier as they bend forward: at rest, they weigh 12 pounds, but bent 60 degrees, they weigh 60. “I have to tell him, ‘Raise your head, son!’” she says. It’s important, Sloan explains, to consider that growth and development will affect ligaments and bones in the neck, potentially making kids even more vulnerable to injuries from misusing gadgets. She recommends that parents limit their kids’ tech time to alleviate strain. She also suggested that tech companies implement a timer to remind us to change our body positioning.
In 2017, Nan-Wei Gong, a former contractor for Google, founded Figur8, which uses wearable trackers to measure muscle function and joint movement. It’s like physical therapy with biofeedback. “Each unique injury has a different biomarker,” says Gong. “With Figur8, you are comparing yourself to yourself.” This allows an individual to self-monitor for wear and tear and strengthen an injury in a way that’s efficient and designed for their body. Gong noticed that the work-from-home model during the COVID-19 pandemic created a new set of ergonomic problems that resulted in injuries. Figur8 provides real-time data for these injuries because “behavioral change requires feedback.”
Gong worked on a project called Jacquard while at Google. Textile experts weave conductive thread into their fabric, and the result is a patch of the fabric—like the cuff of a Levi’s jacket—that responds to commands on your smartphone. One swipe can call your partner or check the weather. It was designed with cyclists in mind who can’t easily check their phones, and it’s part of a growing movement in the tech industry to deliver creative, hands-free design. Gong thinks that engineers at large corporations like Google have accessibility in mind; it’s part of what drives their decisions for new products.
Display sizes of iPhones have become larger over time.
Sourced from Screenrant https://screenrant.com/iphone-apple-release-chronological-order-smartphone/ and Apple Tech Specs: https://www.apple.com/iphone-se/specs/
Back in Germany, Joanna Bryson reminds us that products like smartphones should adhere to best practices. These rules may be especially important for phones and other products with AI that are addictive. Disclosure, accountability, and regulation are important for AI, she says. “The correct balance will keep changing. But we have responsibilities and obligations to each other.” She was on an AI Ethics Council at Google, but the committee was disbanded after only one week due to issues with one of their members.
Bryson was upset about the Council’s dissolution but has faith that other regulatory bodies will prevail. OECD.AI, and international nonprofit, has drafted policies to regulate AI, which countries can sign and implement. “As of July 2021, 46 governments have adhered to the AI principles,” their website reads.
Sundar, the media effects professor, also directs Penn State’s Center for Socially Responsible AI. He says that inclusivity is a crucial aspect of social responsibility and how devices using AI are designed. “We have to go beyond first designing technologies and then making them accessible,” he says. “Instead, we should be considering the issues potentially faced by all different kinds of users before even designing them.”
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.