6 Biotech Breakthroughs of 2021 That Missed the Attention They Deserved
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. 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 @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.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”