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.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.
Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.
“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”
Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.
“It was clear to me that [the therapists] weren't going to heal me, that I was going to have to do the work for myself, but that they were there to completely support my process,” she says. “But the effects of MDMA were really undeniable for me. I felt embodied in a way that I hadn't in years. PTSD had robbed me of the ability to feel safe in my own body.”
Tipton doesn’t think the therapy completely cured her PTSD. “But when I completed the trial in 2018, I no longer qualified for the diagnosis, and I still don't qualify for the diagnosis today,” she told an April workshop on psychedelics as mental health treatment by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM.
Rick Doblin has been a catalyst behind much of the contemporary research into psychedelics. Prior to the DEA clamp down, the Boston psychotherapist had seen that MDMA and other psychedelics could benefit some of his patients where other measures had failed. He immediately organized efforts to question the drug rescheduling but to little avail. In 1986, he created the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which slowly laid the scientific foundation for clinical trials, including the one that Tipton joined, using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.
Now, only slowly, have researchers been able to explore the power of these drugs to treat a broad spectrum of severely debilitating mental health conditions, including trauma, depression, and PTSD, where other available treatments proved inadequate.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems with just a relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis,” Doblin said in a 2019 TED Talk. Most of these drugs can have broad effect but “some are probably more effective than others for certain conditions,” he added in a recent interview with Leaps.org. Comparative head-to-head studies of psychedelic therapies simply have not been conducted.
Their mechanisms of action are poorly understood and can vary between drugs, but it is generally believed that psychedelics change the activity of neurons so that the brain processes information differently, says Katrin Preller, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich. A recent important study in Nature Medicine by Richard Daws and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain and found that “functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment…implying that psilocybin's antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration.”
Rosalind Watts, a clinical investigator at the Imperial College in London, believes there is “an overestimation of the importance of the drug and an underestimation of the importance of the [therapeutic] context” in psychedelic research. “It is unethical to provide the drug without the other,” she says. Doblin notes that “psychotherapy outcomes research demonstrates that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patients is the single most predictive factor of outcomes. [It is] trust and the sense of safety, the willingness to go into difficult spaces” that makes clinical breakthroughs possible with the drug.
Excitement and Challenges
Recurrent themes expressed at the NASEM workshop were exciting glimpses of the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions combined with the challenges of realizing those potentials. A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but the paper could identify only 14 clinical trials of classic psychedelics published since 1991. Much of the reason is that the drugs are not patentable and so the pharmaceutical industry has no interest in investing in expensive clinical trials to bring them to market. MAPS has raised about $135 million over its 36-year history to conduct such research, says Doblin, the vast majority of it from individual donors and none from foundations.
The workshop participants’ views also were colored by the history of drug crackdowns and a fear that research might easily be shut down in the future. There was great concern that use of psychedelics should be confined to clinical trials with high safety and ethical standards, instead of doctors and patients experimenting on their own. “We need to get it right this time,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. But restricting access to psychedelics will become even more difficult now that Oregon and several cities have acted to decriminalize possession and use of many of these drugs.
The experience with ketamine also troubled Grob. He is hoping to “mitigate the rush of rapid commercialization” that occurred with that drug. Ketamine technically is not a psychedelic though it does share some of their potentially euphoric properties. In 2019, soon after the FDA approved a form of ketamine with a limited label indication to treat depression, for profit clinics sprang up promoting off label use of the drug for psychiatric conditions where there was little clinical evidence of efficacy. He fears the same thing will happen when true psychedelics are made available.
If these therapies are approved, access to them is likely to be a problem. The drugs themselves are cheap but the accompanying therapy is not, and there is a shortage of trained psychotherapists. Mental health services often are not adequately covered by health insurance, while the poor and people of color suffer additional burdens of inadequate access. Doblin is committed to health care equity by training additional providers and by investigating whether some of the preparatory and integration sessions might be handled in a group setting. He says it is important that the legal aspects of psychedelics also be addressed so that patients “don't have to go underground” in order to receive this care.