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
Even before COVID-19, policymakers around the world had long struggled with the wicked problem of vaccine equity. Looking to change that, a rock star force of global nonprofits—the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, World Health Organization, UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance—mobilized around a singular goal: accelerate the development and manufacturing of vaccines, while guaranteeing access for the neediest people. In the six months since starting vaccine rollout in February, Covax facilitated 240 million doses in 139 countries.
4th Most Influential Project of 2021
For some of the 26 million people with heart failure, a transplant is the best option—which can mean waiting years for a donor. French medical device maker Carmat has been working on a solution since its founding in 2008, finally unveiling Aeson, an artificial heart that can replace the whole organ for up to six months. The device could bridge a massive gap: Among the 1.3 million people with advanced-stage heart disease, only 5,500 receive a transplant each year. Collaborating with technological experts from Airbus Group, Carmat developed the unit’s lining from preserved bovine pericardium tissue, which has been used for heart valve replacement and can help reduce the risk of blood clots or strokes in implant patients. The European Union approved the device in December 2020, and in July, surgeons completed the first implants in patients in Italy, Germany and the United States.
43rd Most Influential Project of 2021
U.S. biotech firms Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals announced in June they had used gene-editing technology CRISPR inside the human body to treat disease for the first time. After tucking CRISPR enzymes into mRNA and then into a lipid nanoparticle, the Intellia team injected it into the bloodstream of patients with a rare genetic disorder. The patients’ liver cells took up the lipid particles and expressed the CRISPR enzyme, which inactivated the gene that misfolds the transthyretin protein, effectively treating the fatal disorder—and establishing a new frontier in the fight against incurable diseases.
Even as immunology has made major inroads in extending survival for lung and skin cancer patients, treatments for glioblastoma haven’t budged since 2005. Median survival from the brain cancer remains a grim 15 months from diagnosis. Now, researchers from Tel Aviv University have created the first bioprinting of a full, active glioblastoma tumor using a 3-D printer. The bioprinted tumor, which uses live cells from tumor samples as a sort of ink, includes a system of tubes through which blood cells and treatments can flow. Researchers hope the ability to replicate specific active tumors will allow scientists to develop personalized cures.
The ability of different healthcare systems and devices to access, exchange and use data in a cooperative manner fuels efficient, effective patient care. But healthcare systems are notoriously clunky and don’t always play nicely together—creating data silos. In July, Google Cloud did what it does and launched Healthcare Data Engine. The platform lets healthcare payers, providers and other organizations harmonize data from medical records, insurance claims, clinical trials, research data and more all in one place. By helping healthcare organizations harness the power of advanced analytics, Google Cloud aims to usher in a healthcare data revolution that could reduce costs while improving outcomes.
From COVID-19 vaccines to cancer treatments based on immunotherapy, the U.S. has witnessed astounding medical breakthroughs in recent years. To accelerate the pace of innovation and achieve breakthroughs in treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, U.S. President Joe Biden proposed the creation of a new entity, requesting US$6.5 billion to seed the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. Similar to how the country’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has driven advances in defense for decades, the idea is that the new agency would transform the government’s approach to medical research.
Telehealth exploded during the early days of the pandemic, but this popular Shanghai healthcare company did more than just brace for the surge. In April, Ping An Good Doctor launched a portal specifically for COVID-related consults. By mid-2021, company revenue had grown 39 percent compared with the six-month period the year before.
How to get Black men and boys the mental health access they need? Try reaching them where they are: the corner barbershop. That’s the innovative idea behind the Confess Project, a U.S. nonprofit that trains barbers to be mental health advocates. Last year, the group teamed up with U.S. consumer goods giant Gillette to take its concept on the road with a State of the Mind Tour, letting the group build relationships with new barbers and their communities.
Singapore has one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world. As part of a government efforts to enable aging in place, Dementia Singapore launched a project to create retro-inspired murals that help people living with memory loss confidently navigate their neighborhoods. Working in collaboration with community members living with dementia, the team chose artwork designed to be easily recognizable by older people: a red tortoise cake, satay, a kopi cup and White Rabbit candy. And the palette of each one was kept to a maximum of three colors to avoid overwhelming the user with excess information. As of April, the group had completed 37 murals—helping people with dementia and offering up a cool piece of art in the community.