Health breakthroughs of 2022 that should have made bigger news
As the world has attempted to move on from COVID-19 in 2022, attention has returned to other areas of health and biotech with major regulatory approvals such as the Alzheimer's drug lecanemab – which can slow the destruction of brain cells in the early stages of the disease – being hailed by some as momentous breakthroughs.
This has been a year where psychedelic medicines have gained the attention of mainstream researchers with a groundbreaking clinical trial showing that psilocybin treatment can help relieve some of the symptoms of major depressive disorder. And with messenger RNA (mRNA) technology still very much capturing the imagination, the readouts of cancer vaccine trials have made headlines around the world.
But at the same time there have been vital advances which will likely go on to change medicine, and yet have slipped beneath the radar. I asked nine forward-thinking experts on health and biotech about the most important, but underappreciated, breakthrough of 2022.
Their descriptions, below, were lightly edited by Leaps.org for style and format.
New drug targets for Alzheimer’s disease
Professor Julie Williams, Director, Dementia Research Institute, Cardiff University
Genetics has changed our view of Alzheimer’s disease in the last five to six years. The beta amyloid hypothesis has dominated Alzheimer’s research for a long time, but there are multiple components to this complex disease, of which getting rid of amyloid plaques is one, but it is not the whole story. In April 2022, Nature published a paper which is the culmination of a decade’s worth of work - groups all over the world working together to identify 75 genes associated with risk of developing Alzheimer’s. This provides us with a roadmap for understanding the disease mechanisms.
For example, it is showing that there is something different about the immune systems of people who develop Alzheimer’s disease. There is something different about the way they process lipids in the brain, and very specific processes of how things travel through cells called endocytosis. When it comes to immunity, it indicates that the complement system is affecting whether synapses, which are the connections between neurons, get eliminated or not. In Alzheimer’s this process is more severe, so patients are losing more synapses, and this is correlated with cognition.
The genetics also implicates very specific tissues like microglia, which are the housekeepers in the brain. One of their functions is to clear away beta amyloid, but they also prune and nibble away at parts of the brain that are indicated to be diseased. If you have these risk genes, it seems that you are likely to prune more tissue, which may be part of the cell death and neurodegeneration that we observe in Alzheimer’s patients.
Genetics is telling us that we need to be looking at multiple causes of this complex disease, and we are doing that now. It is showing us that there are a number of different processes which combine to push patients into a disease state which results in the death of connections between nerve cells. These findings around the complement system and other immune-related mechanisms are very interesting as there are already drugs which are available for other diseases which could be repurposed in clinical trials. So it is really a turning point for us in the Alzheimer’s disease field.
Preventing Pandemics with Organ-Tissue Equivalents
Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine
COVID-19 has shown us that we need to be better prepared ahead of future pandemics and have systems in place where we can quickly catalogue a new virus and have an idea of which treatment agents would work best against it.
At Wake Forest Institute, our scientists have developed what we call organ-tissue equivalents. These are miniature tissues and organs, created using the same regenerative medicine technologies which we have been using to create tissues for patients. For example, if we are making a miniature liver, we will recreate this structure using the six different cell types you find in the liver, in the right proportions, and then the right extracellular matrix which holds the structure together. You're trying to replicate all the characteristics of the liver, but just in a miniature format.
We can now put these organ-tissue equivalents in a chip-like device, where we can expose them to different types of viral infections, and start to get a realistic idea of how the human body reacts to these viruses. We can use artificial intelligence and machine learning to map the pathways of the body’s response. This will allow us to catalogue known viruses far more effectively, and begin storing information on them.
Powering Deep Brain Stimulators with Breath
Islam Mosa, Co-Founder and CTO of VoltXon
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) devices are becoming increasingly common with 150,000 new devices being implanted every year for people with Parkinson’s disease, but also psychiatric conditions such as treatment-resistant depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders. But one of the biggest limitations is the power source – I call DBS devices energy monsters. While cardiac pacemakers use similar technology, their batteries last seven to ten years, but DBS batteries need changing every two to three years. This is because they are generating between 60-180 pulses per second.
Replacing the batteries requires surgery which costs a lot of money, and with every repeat operation comes a risk of infection, plus there is a lot of anxiety on behalf of the patient that the battery is running out.
My colleagues at the University of Connecticut and I, have developed a new way of charging these devices using the person’s own breathing movements, which would mean that the batteries never need to be changed. As the patient breathes in and out, their chest wall presses on a thin electric generator, which converts that movement into static electricity, charging a supercapacitor. This discharges the electricity required to power the DBS device and send the necessary pulses to the brain.
So far it has only been tested in a simulated pig, using a pig lung connected to a pump, but there are plans now to test it in a real animal, and then progress to clinical trials.
Smartwatches for Disease Detection
Jessilyn Dunn, Assistant Professor in Duke Biomedical Engineering
A group of researchers recently showed that digital biomarkers of infection can reveal when someone is sick, often before they feel sick. The team, which included Duke biomedical engineers, used information from smartwatches to detect Covid-19 cases five to 10 days earlier than diagnostic tests. Smartwatch data included aspects of heart rate, sleep quality and physical activity. Based on this data, we developed an algorithm to decide which people have the most need to take the diagnostic tests. With this approach, the percent of tests that come back positive are about four- to six-times higher, depending on which factors we monitor through the watches.
Our study was one of several showing the value of digital biomarkers, rather than a single blockbuster paper. With so many new ideas and technologies coming out around Covid, it’s hard to be that signal through the noise. More studies are needed, but this line of research is important because, rather than treat everyone as equally likely to have an infectious disease, we can use prior knowledge from smartwatches. With monkeypox, for example, you've got many more people who need to be tested than you have tests available. Information from the smartwatches enables you to improve how you allocate those tests.
Smartwatch data could also be applied to chronic diseases. For viruses, we’re looking for information about anomalies – a big change point in people’s health. For chronic diseases, it’s more like a slow, steady change. Our research lays the groundwork for the signals coming from smartwatches to be useful in a health setting, and now it’s up to us to detect more of these chronic cases. We want to go from the idea that we have this single change point, like a heart attack or stroke, and focus on the part before that, to see if we can detect it.
A Vaccine For RSV
Norbert Pardi, Vaccines Group Lead, Penn Institute for RNA Innovation, University of Pennsylvania
Scientists have long been trying to develop a vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and it looks like Pfizer are closing in on this goal, based on the latest clinical trial data in newborns which they released in November. Pfizer have developed a protein-based vaccine against the F protein of RSV, which they are giving to pregnant women. It turns out that it induces a robust immune response after the administration of a single shot and it seems to be highly protective in newborns. The efficacy was over 80% after 90 days, so it protected very well against severe disease, and even though this dropped a little after six month, it was still pretty high.
I think this has been a very important breakthrough, and very timely at the moment with both COVID-19, influenza and RSV circulating, which just shows the importance of having a vaccine which works well in both the very young and the very old.
The road to an RSV vaccine has also illustrated the importance of teamwork in 21st century vaccine development. You need people with different backgrounds to solve these challenges – microbiologists, immunologists and structural biologists working together to understand how viruses work, and how our immune system induces protective responses against certain viruses. It has been this kind of teamwork which has yielded the findings that targeting the prefusion stabilized form of the F protein in RSV induces much stronger and highly protective immune responses.
Gene therapy shows its potential
Nicole Paulk, Assistant Professor of Gene Therapy at the University of California, San Francisco
The recent US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of Hemgenix, a gene therapy for hemophilia B, is big for a lot of reasons. While hemophilia is absolutely a rare disease, it is astronomically more common than the first two approvals – Luxturna for RPE65-meidated inherited retinal dystrophy and Zolgensma for spinal muscular atrophy - so many more patients will be treated with this. In terms of numbers of patients, we are now starting to creep up into things that are much more common, which is a huge step in terms of our ability to scale the production of an adeno-associated virus (AAV) vector for gene therapy.
Hemophilia is also a really special patient population because this has been the darling indication for AAV gene therapy for the last 20 to 30 years. AAV trafficks to the liver so well, it’s really easy for us to target the tissues that we want. If you look at the numbers, there have been more gene therapy scientists working on hemophilia than any other condition. There have just been thousands and thousands of us working on gene therapy indications for the last 20 or 30 years, so to see the first of these approvals make it, feels really special.
I am sure it is even more special for the patients because now they have a choice – do I want to stay on my recombinant factor drug that I need to take every day for the rest of my life, or right now I could get a one-time infusion of this virus and possibly experience curative levels of expression for the rest of my life. And this is just the first one for hemophilia, there’s going to end up being a dozen gene therapies within the next five years, targeted towards different hemophilias.
Every single approval is momentous for the entire field because it gets investors excited, it gets companies and physicians excited, and that helps speed things up. Right now, it's still a challenge to produce enough for double digit patients. But with more interest comes the experiments and trials that allow us to pick up the knowledge to scale things up, so that we can go after bigger diseases like diabetes, congestive heart failure, cancer, all of these much bigger afflictions.
Treating Thickened Hearts
John Spertus, Professor in Metabolic and Vascular Disease Research, UMKC School of Medicine
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a disease that causes your heart muscle to enlarge, and the walls of your heart chambers thicken and reduce in size. Because of this, they cannot hold as much blood and may stiffen, causing some sufferers to experience progressive shortness of breath, fatigue and ultimately heart failure.
So far we have only had very crude ways of treating it, using beta blockers, calcium channel blockers or other medications which cause the heart to beat less strongly. This works for some patients but a lot of time it does not, which means you have to consider removing part of the wall of the heart with surgery.
Earlier this year, a trial of a drug called mavacamten, became the first study to show positive results in treating HCM. What is remarkable about mavacamten is that it is directed at trying to block the overly vigorous contractile proteins in the heart, so it is a highly targeted, focused way of addressing the key problem in these patients. The study demonstrated a really large improvement in patient quality of life where they were on the drug, and when they went off the drug, the quality of life went away.
Some specialists are now hypothesizing that it may work for other cardiovascular diseases where the heart either beats too strongly or it does not relax well enough, but just having a treatment for HCM is a really big deal. For years we have not been very aggressive in identifying and treating these patients because there have not been great treatments available, so this could lead to a new era.
David Andrijevic, Associate Research Scientist in neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine
As soon as the heartbeat stops, a whole chain of biochemical processes resulting from ischemia – the lack of blood flow, oxygen and nutrients – begins to destroy the body’s cells and organs. My colleagues and I at Yale School of Medicine have been investigating whether we can recover organs after prolonged ischemia, with the main goal of expanding the organ donor pool.
Earlier this year we published a paper in which we showed that we could use technology to restore blood circulation, other cellular functions and even heart activity in pigs, one hour after their deaths. This was done using a perfusion technology to substitute heart, lung and kidney function, and deliver an experimental cell protective fluid to these organs which aimed to stop cell death and aid in the recovery.
One of the aims of this technology is that it can be used in future to lengthen the time window for recovering organs for donation after a person has been declared dead, a logistical hurdle which would allow us to substantially increase the donor pool. We might also be able to use this cell protective fluid in studies to see if it can help people who have suffered from strokes and myocardial infarction. In future, if we managed to achieve an adequate brain recovery – and the brain, out of all the organs, is the most susceptible to ischemia – this might also change some paradigms in resuscitation medicine.
Antibody-Drug Conjugates for Cancer
Yosi Shamay, Cancer Nanomedicine and Nanoinformatics researcher at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology
For the past four or five years, antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) - a cancer drug where you have an antibody conjugated to a toxin - have been used only in patients with specific cancers that display high expression of a target protein, for example HER2-positive breast cancer. But in 2022, there have been clinical trials where ADCs have shown remarkable results in patients with low expression of HER2, which is something we never expected to see.
In July 2022, AstraZeneca published the results of a clinical trial, which showed that an ADC called trastuzumab deruxtecan can offer a very big survival benefit to breast cancer patients with very little expression of HER2, levels so low that they would be borderline undetectable for a pathologist. They got a strong survival signal for patients with very aggressive, metastatic disease.
I think this is very interesting and important because it means that it might pave the way to include more patients in clinical trials looking at ADCs for other cancers, for example lymphoma, colon cancer, lung cancers, even if they have low expression of the protein target. It also holds implications for CAR-T cells - where you genetically engineer a T cell to attack the cancer - because the concept is very similar. If we now know that an ADC can have a survival benefit, even in patients with very low target expression, the same might be true for T cells.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”