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.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.