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.
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.
As a type 2 diabetic, Michael Snyder has long been interested in how blood sugar levels vary from one person to another in response to the same food, and whether a more personalized approach to nutrition could help tackle the rapidly cascading levels of diabetes and obesity in much of the western world.
Eight years ago, Snyder, who directs the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, decided to put his theories to the test. In the 2000s continuous glucose monitoring, or CGM, had begun to revolutionize the lives of diabetics, both type 1 and type 2. Using spherical sensors which sit on the upper arm or abdomen – with tiny wires that pierce the skin – the technology allowed patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
It gave Snyder an idea for his research at Stanford. Applying the same technology to a group of apparently healthy people, and looking for ‘spikes’ or sudden surges in blood sugar known as hyperglycemia, could provide a means of observing how their bodies reacted to an array of foods.
“We discovered that different foods spike people differently,” he says. “Some people spike to pasta, others to bread, others to bananas, and so on. It’s very personalized and our feeling was that building programs around these devices could be extremely powerful for better managing people’s glucose.”
Unbeknown to Snyder at the time, thousands of miles away, a group of Israeli scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science were doing exactly the same experiments. In 2015, they published a landmark paper which used CGM to track the blood sugar levels of 800 people over several days, showing that the biological response to identical foods can vary wildly. Like Snyder, they theorized that giving people a greater understanding of their own glucose responses, so they spend more time in the normal range, may reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.
The commercial potential of such apps is clear, but the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
“At the moment 33 percent of the U.S. population is pre-diabetic, and 70 percent of those pre-diabetics will become diabetic,” says Snyder. “Those numbers are going up, so it’s pretty clear we need to do something about it.”
Fast forward to 2022,and both teams have converted their ideas into subscription-based dietary apps which use artificial intelligence to offer data-informed nutritional and lifestyle recommendations. Snyder’s spinoff, January AI, combines CGM information with heart rate, sleep, and activity data to advise on foods to avoid and the best times to exercise. DayTwo–a start-up which utilizes the findings of Weizmann Institute of Science–obtains microbiome information by sequencing stool samples, and combines this with blood glucose data to rate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods for a particular person.
“CGMs can be used to devise personalized diets,” says Eran Elinav, an immunology professor and microbiota researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in addition to serving as a scientific consultant for DayTwo. “However, this process can be cumbersome. Therefore, in our lab we created an algorithm, based on data acquired from a big cohort of people, which can accurately predict post-meal glucose responses on a personal basis.”
The commercial potential of such apps is clear. DayTwo, who market their product to corporate employers and health insurers rather than individual consumers, recently raised $37 million in funding. But the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
Last year, Elinav and colleagues published a study on 225 individuals with pre-diabetes which found that they achieved better blood sugar control when they followed a personalized diet based on DayTwo’s recommendations, compared to a Mediterranean diet. The journal Cell just released a new paper from Snyder’s group which shows that different types of fibre benefit people in different ways.
“The idea is you hear different fibres are good for you,” says Snyder. “But if you look at fibres they’re all over the map—it’s like saying all animals are the same. The responses are very individual. For a lot of people [a type of fibre called] arabinoxylan clearly reduced cholesterol while the fibre inulin had no effect. But in some people, it was the complete opposite.”
Eight years ago, Stanford's Michael Snyder began studying how continuous glucose monitors could be used by patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
The Snyder Lab, Stanford Medicine
Because of studies like these, interest in precision nutrition approaches has exploded in recent years. In January, the National Institutes of Health announced that they are spending $170 million on a five year, multi-center initiative which aims to develop algorithms based on a whole range of data sources from blood sugar to sleep, exercise, stress, microbiome and even genomic information which can help predict which diets are most suitable for a particular individual.
“There's so many different factors which influence what you put into your mouth but also what happens to different types of nutrients and how that ultimately affects your health, which means you can’t have a one-size-fits-all set of nutritional guidelines for everyone,” says Bruce Y. Lee, professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health.
With the falling costs of genomic sequencing, other precision nutrition clinical trials are choosing to look at whether our genomes alone can yield key information about what our diets should look like, an emerging field of research known as nutrigenomics.
The ASPIRE-DNA clinical trial at Imperial College London is aiming to see whether particular genetic variants can be used to classify individuals into two groups, those who are more glucose sensitive to fat and those who are more sensitive to carbohydrates. By following a tailored diet based on these sensitivities, the trial aims to see whether it can prevent people with pre-diabetes from developing the disease.
But while much hope is riding on these trials, even precision nutrition advocates caution that the field remains in the very earliest of stages. Lars-Oliver Klotz, professor of nutrigenomics at Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, Germany, says that while the overall goal is to identify means of avoiding nutrition-related diseases, genomic data alone is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“Genome data is rather simple to acquire these days as sequencing techniques have dramatically advanced in recent years,” he says. “However, the predictive value of just genome sequencing is too low in the case of obesity and prediabetes.”
Others say that while genomic data can yield useful information in terms of how different people metabolize different types of fat and specific nutrients such as B vitamins, there is a need for more research before it can be utilized in an algorithm for making dietary recommendations.
“I think it’s a little early,” says Eileen Gibney, a professor at University College Dublin. “We’ve identified a limited number of gene-nutrient interactions so far, but we need more randomized control trials of people with different genetic profiles on the same diet, to see whether they respond differently, and if that can be explained by their genetic differences.”
Some start-ups have already come unstuck for promising too much, or pushing recommendations which are not based on scientifically rigorous trials. The world of precision nutrition apps was dubbed a ‘Wild West’ by some commentators after the founders of uBiome – a start-up which offered nutritional recommendations based on information obtained from sequencing stool samples –were charged with fraud last year. The weight-loss app Noom, which was valued at $3.7 billion in May 2021, has been criticized on Twitter by a number of users who claimed that its recommendations have led to them developed eating disorders.
With precision nutrition apps marketing their technology at healthy individuals, question marks have also been raised about the value which can be gained through non-diabetics monitoring their blood sugar through CGM. While some small studies have found that wearing a CGM can make overweight or obese individuals more motivated to exercise, there is still a lack of conclusive evidence showing that this translates to improved health.
However, independent researchers remain intrigued by the technology, and say that the wealth of data generated through such apps could be used to help further stratify the different types of people who become at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“CGM not only enables a longer sampling time for capturing glucose levels, but will also capture lifestyle factors,” says Robert Wagner, a diabetes researcher at University Hospital Düsseldorf. “It is probable that it can be used to identify many clusters of prediabetic metabolism and predict the risk of diabetes and its complications, but maybe also specific cardiometabolic risk constellations. However, we still don’t know which forms of diabetes can be prevented by such approaches and how feasible and long-lasting such self-feedback dietary modifications are.”
Snyder himself has now been wearing a CGM for eight years, and he credits the insights it provides with helping him to manage his own diabetes. “My CGM still gives me novel insights into what foods and behaviors affect my glucose levels,” he says.
He is now looking to run clinical trials with his group at Stanford to see whether following a precision nutrition approach based on CGM and microbiome data, combined with other health information, can be used to reverse signs of pre-diabetes. If it proves successful, January AI may look to incorporate microbiome data in future.
“Ultimately, what I want to do is be able take people’s poop samples, maybe a blood draw, and say, ‘Alright, based on these parameters, this is what I think is going to spike you,’ and then have a CGM to test that out,” he says. “Getting very predictive about this, so right from the get go, you can have people better manage their health and then use the glucose monitor to help follow that.”