These 2021 Biotech Breakthroughs Will Shape the Future of Health and Medicine

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It’s that time of year again! With 2021 behind us, we’re going down memory lane to highlight biotech innovations that shaped the year—with impact that will likely reverberate for many years to come. Covid-19 dominated the news, but science didn’t stand still.

Take gene editing. CRISPR spun off variations with breathtaking speed, expanding into a hefty toolbox packed with powerhouse gene editors far more efficient, reliable, and safer than their predecessors. CRISPRoff, for example, hijacks epigenetic processes to reversibly turn genes on and off—all without actually snipping or damaging the gene itself. Prime editing, the nip-tuck of DNA editing that only snips—rather than fully cutting—DNA received an upgrade to precisely edit up to 10,000 DNA letters in a variety of cells. Twin prime editing can rework entire genes. These powered-up CRISPR tools now make it possible to tackle previously untouchable genetic disorders.

Yet we’re still only scratching the surface of gene editing. Peeking into the CRISPR family tree, scientists found a vast universe of alternative CRISPR-like systems to further explore. AI is now helping identify new CRISPR proteins—and their kill switch. Other ideas jumped ship from CRISPR altogether, tapping into another powerful bacterial system to edit millions of DNA sequences without breaking a single DNA strand. Without doubt, the gene editing toolbox will keep expanding.

In other news, quantum mechanics hooked up with neuroscience to speed up AI. AI is now designing its own hardware chips at Google in an efficient full circle. Hopping into our own brains, in a stunning proof-of-concept, AI-powered brain implants were able to fight depression, with ongoing work to treat chronic pain and translate the brain’s electrical signals from thought to text. In the medical world, a fierce debate on an Alzheimer’s treatment sparked a new round of alluring ideas to tackle and tame our long-time mind-eating foe.

There’s a ton more. But here are the top three advances that’ll keep reshaping biotech far past 2021, with some runners-up.

  1. mRNA Vaccines: Digital Vaccines
  2. In Vivo Gene Therapy: Directly editing genes inside the body
  3. Human Development: Understanding human embryo’s development

By Shelly Fan

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