7 Big Biotech Ideas for 2019

Scientists and other creators tell us about the developments they’re watching for and the conversations they’ll be starting.

Julia Faith Sklar
Dec 20, 2018 · 9 min read
Animation by Render Fruit

A leading longevity researcher, David Sinclair, says we’re entering “one of the most interesting times in human history.” He’s referring to breakthroughs he expects in his own line of work. But it’s true in many other fields as well. Gene editing, food innovation, and synthetic biology are poised to dramatically reshape our concept of what it means to be human.

Yet technological progress alone isn’t enough. We have to ask the right questions about how to steer imminent advances.

CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang thinks that’s exactly what’s happening in gene editing. The technology is about to make big strides in medicine even as the scientific community pauses other uses to review their ethical implications.

Here is what Sinclair, Zhang, and five other experts told me about how they see things coming together.

“There are really exciting advances in three areas. The first area is CRISPR-based medicine. Clinical trials are beginning and drug developers are now testing CRISPR in the context of blood diseases, like sickle cell, and also testing it in the eye to treat blindness. There is also work that’s moving quite quickly to apply CRISPR in cancer treatments.

“The second area is turning CRISPR into a robust diagnostic tool for infectious diseases like Ebola, or any sort of epidemic virus, and also advancing its application in the future for diagnosing bacterial infections or maybe even cancer.

“And the third area is the ability of gene editing to improve agriculture. Making farming more efficient, being able to increase the yield, and being able to increase the nutritional properties of agricultural produce to be able to vastly improve human health. And you know, CRISPR-based diagnostics could be used for food safety as well — being able to see if a certain food is contaminated by certain bacteria.

“My hope is that society as a whole will begin to engage in a serious conversation about what it wants, in terms of gene editing and changing the human germline. The news that came out of China is catalyzing that conversation. It’s an important conversation to have, especially since the technology is so imminent. It’s important to take a pause to really have that conversation so that we can get society’s consent, in whichever direction, to figure out what we want to do — and that pause is not for CRISPR research as a whole, but specifically for the use of CRISPR in editing embryos to establish pregnancy.”

“Every time there’s some kind of viral meme where it’s called out to individuals that we hear or see the world a little differently — just look at Yanny vs. Laurel this year — it goes viral because we all have a hard time with the realization that we fundamentally experience the world differently. And yet I think it’s one of the most important things we need for empathy, for better understanding the evolution of humanity, and for ensuring that artificial intelligence and its applications are actually realized [by] the individual as opposed to imposed on the individual.

“I do not believe that tech should empathize with me. I don’t want robots trying to emulate human qualities in any way. I’m looking for ways that technology enhances human capacity, and that’s very different. I think that’s critical in today’s climate. We’re entering an era where technology is bringing benefits to individuals — in their capacity, in their performance, in their success in the workplace — and life is going to be highly dependent on the new directions that technology enables.

“The problem is not just bias in AI, because we’ve been talking about that for some time. It’s that we are individuals and we need to look at how a technology is going to impact different demographics. What are the behavioral changes that will happen if the technology is successful? And if it’s not? If we don’t come up with a better way of ensuring that technology is held accountable for realizing those benefits, we’re just going to end up with more demographic rifts and splits.”

“The two defining moments [in food tech in 2018] have really big implications for next year. For one, Tyson Ventures made an investment in a company in Jerusalem called Future Meat Technologies. Tyson has a stranglehold on the traditional protein market, so it was a big signal in terms of them looking more diversely at what protein means, and looking at cellular agriculture as this viable thing of the future. I think it’ll be interesting in 2019 to see how many other Big Protein players follow suit.

“The other thing is [officials in] the United States said that they would not regulate CRISPR-edited crops. There are obviously still questions about how to label it — that’s still up for debate — but the regulatory burden of introducing a CRISPR food product in the United States has become way easier. Simultaneously, Europe went the other way. They consider CRISPR to be under typical rules for GMOs, which are pretty stringent. I think what’s going to happen is the investment is going to move toward the United States in a really aggressive way, and is really going to shift the wind of innovation. For example, Calyxt has their gene-edited soybean that doesn’t produce trans fats. That’s supposed to come on the market in 2019.”

“Most brain-computer interface [BCI] work has focused on developing systems to restore some sort of movement or function to someone who’s lost it. This year there have been a couple of noteworthy papers that have said, ‘That’s all well and good, that’s all necessary, but there’s another half to the story, which is restoring sensation.’ You can’t react quickly if visual feedback is all that you have. So the work that’s gone on in the last year or so has focused on giving back, particularly to people with spinal cord injury, the ability to get other types of sensory feedback like pressure, temperature, texture, or proprioception. This work is very much in its infancy and it’s going to be really exciting to watch it progress in the coming year.

“One milestone that’s on the horizon is a fully implanted BCI system. The goal is to have it be invisible like a pacemaker. Almost everything that [the BCI field has] done so far is very lab-based, and we’re now working on making devices fully implanted so that we can begin to think about at-home use, and the potential for someone to use their device 24/7 without being tethered to a computer, or without an expert controlling the device.

“A lot of public figures and private companies have promised a lot of things about BCIs. Like Facebook, which has promised the ability to type 100 words per minute on your phone just with your thoughts. I’m very thankful that these individuals have brought a lot of attention to BCIs, but what I fear is that the public statements may give unrealistic expectations. It’s not going to be like you have a thought of what you want for dinner and you can send it to your roommate. These devices can provide some significant function, and possibly some enhancements, to people who have neurological injury, and then possibly in some small way this will trickle down to the general public. But we all need to be responsible in how we talk about it.”

“[In my lab] we’ve been working on the molecule NAD. We published in Cell in March that by raising NAD levels we could rapidly reverse many aspects of aging in mice. [We gave] old mice the ability to run like young mice again and actually out-compete young mice. That was happening because there was improved blood flow throughout the animal. The molecule that we used is called NMN. We put that in the water supply, and after just a week we saw an increase in endurance. We’re excited about this breakthrough because it shows that we understand why we lose blood flow as we get older, and why we get tired and feel frail. But it also shows that we have a very quick way of reversing that. You could imagine people who are tired, wheelchair-bound, or even bedridden, having energy to get out and exercise again.”

“Next year we’ll hopefully be reporting on a project that we started 10 years ago. We are looking at reprogramming cells to make them young again. We think we found an underlying cause of aging, and we’re able to dial that forwards and to some extent backwards.

“I think the public doesn’t realize how advanced this technology is and how many investors and companies are also involved. 2019 is going to be a watershed year for this field. Just so many things are converging. The science, the business side, the clinical trials reporting out, and the general interest from the public — all of that means that in a year from now, we may find ourselves in one of the most interesting times in human history. It always takes a long time to get a lab result to humans, usually at least a decade, but it’s coming now. There’s really no question.”

“The most important thing the government could do in the short term to move the needle on health for its citizens would be to start talking about it as an investment, rather than as spending. We need to think of health ‘spending’ as creating an asset, which is a healthy workforce that operates efficiently, versus a run-down, demoralized, addicted, distracted workforce that has low productivity and a lot of costs.

“If you’re a taxpayer, you are spending so much more money fixing people who are broken than you would ever spend if we kept them healthy in the first place. I mean, the return on investment of all of these things is huge, but it’s not immediate. It takes time. There are a lot of people in community health — public health and social work — who understand this. In terms of politicians, nobody really thinks beyond their term.

“With the ongoing opioid crisis, to me the real crisis is not merely people dying of overdoses, it’s people living with addiction, and living with the vulnerabilities that lead to that addiction. Treatments for addiction are not about, ‘Oh we’ve got this great new substance or digital tracker that’s going to change everything.’ I don’t believe anything like that will. So much about being healthy is not about innovation, it’s still about all the ‘boring’ stuff: early childhood experiences, the environment in which people live, transportation to jobs, healthy food, etc.”

“I’m excited to see the circular economy become part of the conversation in synthetic biology this year. There’s huge potential for biology to offer better alternatives to the current system of production and manufacturing. Creating new materials is the macro aspect, but biology can also help to repurpose materials, or create sustainable chemicals that are used in the processing of materials. I think that is really rich territory for scaling the intervention that synthetic biology can stage to enable sustainable futures.”

NEO.LIFE

Making sense of the Neobiological Revolution.

Julia Faith Sklar

Written by

Independent journalist, covering mostly women's health. Find me at @jfsklar on Twitter.

NEO.LIFE

NEO.LIFE

Making sense of the Neobiological Revolution.