Within six months of COVID-19 sweeping the globe, research teams were developing more than 169 vaccines. One of the earliest companies to enter Phase 3 trials (in late July), Moderna, is taking a novel tack: developing vaccines based on messenger RNA (mRNA), the molecule that relays genetic instructions from DNA to the cell’s protein-making mechanisms and could potentially be used to make viral proteins in the body. The U.S. government has poured nearly US$1 billion into the project.
Part sci-fi movie, part stunning innovation: In December 2019, China’s Qihan Biotech and U.S.-based eGenesis announced they had used the genome editor CRISPR to create genetically engineered pigs intended for use in organ transplants. The researchers ultimately see using them for humans, but have started by transplanting the pigs’ organs—modified with nine human genes—into non-human primates, including successful heart transplants into several baboons.
Infectious disease researchers hit a major milestone in December 2019, when Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first vaccine to prevent Ebola in adults. A 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people led to a clinical study that found Ervebo to be 100 percent effective.
U.K. artificial intelligence company BenevolentAI pivoted its machine learning platform to focus on scouring scientific literature in search of existing drugs with potential to treat COVID-19. Within a month of the project’s January launch, the platform identified an anti-inflammatory drug developed by Eli Lilly—and by April, the pharma giant had launched a Phase 2 clinical trial. Whatever the outcome, it’s a promising sign for AI-driven medication discovery.
A team of U.K. and Brazilian researchers found a way to convert the waste generated in agricultural processes into chemicals worth 5,000 times their original value. Announced last November, the transformation is achieved through a biocatalytic treatment of sugar cane and wheat straw waste that releases internal acids into “coniferol,” a plant-based building block that can be used to make food, drugs and other household goods.
Scientists at the University of Vermont and Tufts University have created self-healing bots using cells scraped from frog embryos. The tiny xenobots—named for the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis—can be programmed for multiple tasks and someday could be used to remove radioactive contamination or scrape out plaque from arteries, says project co-leader Michael Levin.
Designed to address an unmet need in treating invasive bladder cancer, ImmunityBio’s new treatment received a breakthrough therapy designation last December from the U.S. Federal Drug Administration that expedites development. The project is part of Cancer Breakthroughs 2020 (formerly known as Cancer Moonshot), a coalition of biotech companies working to accelerate the potential of combination immunotherapy as the new standard of care for cancer patients, thereby avoiding high-dose chemotherapy.
Last October, Canada’s Hyperstealth Biotechnology patented a material that bends light around its wearer, making the person or object invisible in any light (natural, ultraviolet, infrared and shortwave). The lightweight material could take camouflage to the next level.
After 12 years of failed attempts, U.K. scientists officially cured Adam Castillejo—known as The London Patient—of HIV in March 2019. It is only the second time a patient has been cured of the infection that causes AIDS—both of them achieved through bone-marrow transplants.
One of the fastest-developed biological treatments for cancer in the United States and Japan, Enhertu was driven by a strong collaboration between AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo. The two pharmaceutical giants partnered to develop the drug for HER2-positive breast cancer cases that can’t be treated with surgery or have spread to other parts of the body. The U.S. government approved Enhertu in December 2019.