Most vaccines take a decade to develop, test and make their way to market. But two teams had a secret weapon. One team was U.S. biotech firm Moderna. The other was a collaboration between pharma giant Pfizer and German biotech company BioNTech. Both believed they could deliver COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year by using messenger RNA (mRNA). By the end of 2020, both teams had delivered—and jabs were soon being administered around the world. Now researchers are examining how the tech might be used to combat other diseases, including malaria, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
1st Most Influential Project of 2021
This project really is the cat’s meow: a lab-grown mouse meat treat for kitties. And Philadelphia biotech startup Because, Animals is proclaiming it as the world’s first consumer goods product made with cultured meat. To create the treats, the company cultivates real mice meat directly from cells—without any harm to the animal—and then blends it with plant-based ingredients such as tempeh, miso and nutritional yeast. After testing it with cats, the company is now waiting on regulatory approval and aiming to have a limited batch of the product on the market by the end of the year. And just so the dogs don’t get jealous, the team is working on its next project: a cultured rabbit cookie for the canine crowd.
To help determine a patient’s risk of stroke—the number two cause of death worldwide—doctors must scrutinize ultrasound images, looking for potential blood vessel blockages. See-Mode Technologies developed an AI software called Augmented Vascular Analysis that it says can analyze a full vascular ultrasound scan or MRI in under a minute, helping clinicians predict and prevent strokes. The medtech startup, based in Singapore and Australia, has received clearance in those countries, as well as the United States and Europe.
Some 6 million people in India (and 40 million worldwide) need prosthetic limbs, but the devices are often prohibitively expensive. Looking to develop a more affordable option, Makers Hive in Hyderabad used 3D printing to create KalArm: an app-enabled bionic hand that costs around US$5,000, an estimated 90 percent less than comparable prosthetics. Released in December 2020, it receives wireless firmware updates and can be customized with a range of interchangeable panels.
Neuroscientists and engineers have been investigating the use of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) to help paralyzed people communicate by typing on a computer or manipulating a robotic prosthesis using the power of the mind. But so far, participants must be tethered to equipment in the lab. In an April trial, researchers from the U.S. BrainGate consortium demonstrated a wireless BCI that opens the door for people to one day benefit from the technology in their own homes. The results would be life changing—especially if combined with a new groundbreaking AI model that can directly translate thoughts into full sentences on screen.
Fungi meets fashion with the launch of Mylo, an “unleather” made from fibrous structural tissue found in mushrooms and other fungi. Created by U.S. biotech firm Bolt Threads, the faux leather has the form, feel and function of the real thing—without the use of animals, the resources they require or the greenhouse gasses they emit. U.K. ecoluxe designer Stella McCartney debuted a bustier and trousers made from unleather in Vogue in March, while German footwear giant Adidas debuted a mushroom-flavored take on its iconic Stan Smith shoes earlier this year.
After nearly a decade of R&D, French startup Carbios—backed by companies including PepsiCo, L’Oréal, Nestlé Waters, and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe—proclaimed in June that it had created the world’s first PET food-grade bottles made entirely from enzymatically recycled plastic. By supercharging a naturally occurring enzyme in compost heaps, the company can break down plastics to their elements. And those can be reformed into plastic bottles over and over, without quality loss. The project answers the quandary of traditional mechanical recycling often being unable to produce food-grade plastics for new packaging—and arrives as governments are cracking down on single-use plastics. Up next: an industrial facility delivered by 2025.
In what could become a model for saving animals from extinction, Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret, became the first cloned specimen of an endangered native North American species. The project had quite a few “parents”: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, biotech nonprofit Revive & Restore, commercial cloning company ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The embryo that would become Elizabeth Ann was created from a line of cells collected from a wild black-footed ferret in 1988, when the animals teetered on extinction.
The Silicon Valley startup known for creating a plant-based egg substitute is now set on launching lab-grown meat into the mainstream. After receiving what it called “first-in-the-world” approval in December, Eat Just made its inaugural commercial sale of chicken created directly from animal cells. The futuristic food made its debut appropriately enough at a dinner of young climate change activists at 1880, a private members’ club in Singapore. Good Meat contains no antibiotics and minimal microbiological content, such as salmonella and E. coli, and no chickens are killed to secure the cells needed to make it.
Inspired by spider silk, scientists at U.K.’s University of Cambridge announced in June they had developed a strong, supple and biodegradable material made from soy protein that can be used to replace single-use plastic products. Spin-off startup Xampla aims to begin selling compostable microcapsules for personal care products and packets—such as those used in laundry detergent pods—made from the “vegan spider silk” material by the end of the year. The impact could be massive: The company estimates that every year, Europe alone releases a bulk amount of microplastics into the environment equivalent to 10 billion plastic bottles.