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The Year in Biotech

Brain Chips, Gene Chips, Magical Pills, and Stem-Cell Cures.
December 27, 2006

A pill for having your cake and eating it too.
Resveratrol, a component of red wine, has previously been linked to longevity: the compound can extend life in yeast, roundworms, fruit flies, and fish. In November, scientists found that it also boosts the health of mice.(See “A Life-Extending Pill for Fat Mice.”) The compound, when administered in doses many times that found in a glass or even a bottle of red wine, keeps middle-aged mice on a high-fat, high-calorie diet as healthy and long-lived as mice on a more sensible diet, improving insulin sensitivity and heart and liver function. Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, a startup that participated in the research, is developing a resveratrol-like pill that it hopes will slow or stop the diseases of aging, including type II diabetes.

Transplanted photoreceptor cells (green against a backdrop of host-retinal cells, shown in blue) offer hope for people already blind from degenerative eye disease.

Restoring vision in blind mice.
In November, a breakthrough in stem-cell research brought new hope to people with macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, two degenerative eye diseases that lead to blindness. Researchers in London created retinal cells from stem cells and then implanted them in the eyes of mice that had been bred to suffer from retinal degeneration.The cells integrated into the retina, forming functional connections with existing retinal cells. (See “Retinal Transplant Restores Vision in Mice.”) While it’s not yet clear if the same process will work in humans, scientists at the University of Washington, in Seattle,developed a method to reliably grow retinal cells from human embryonic stem cells,providing a potential source of cells for human transplants.(See “Using Stem Cells to Cure Blindness.”)

Banana-scented bacteria, engineered to order.
Sweet-smelling bacteria are just one of the unusual biological creations that emerged this year from the growing field of synthetic biology. The ultimate goal of synthetic biology is to create biological machines that can perform useful functions, such as producing energy or attacking diseased cells in the body. While tumor-killing bacteria are still a ways off, biological engineers are currently developing – and showing off – the “biological parts” needed to make more-complex designs.(See “Bizarre Bacterial Creations,” “Better Fuel Cells Using Bacteria,” and “Tumor-Killing Bacteria.”) Each part is generated with bits of DNA that, when inserted into living organisms, can make the organisms glow, detect light, and perform a number of other novel functions. Scientists submit theirs parts, such as those used to create the banana-scented bacteria, to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a sort of hardware store for genetic parts housed at MIT. The registry then distributes the genetic building blocks around the world.

Reviving Neandertals.
New sequencing technologies that can decode genomes faster and cheaper than ever before are opening a window on our evolutionary past. Earlier this year, scientists at the Max Plank Institute, in Germany,and at 454 Life Sciences, a sequencing company based in Branford, CT,announced plans to decode the Neandertal genome from 30,000-year-old bone fragments. (See “How Neandertal DNA Will Shed Light on Human Genes.”) Because of contamination with bacterial DNA, researchers need to sequence the genome an equivalent of 20 times to get adequate genomic information–a feat made possible by 454’s sequencing technology. Researchers plan to compare the small genetic differences among chimps, Neandertals, and humans – about 4 percent of the genome – in order to uncover the genetic changes that make us uniquely human.

Brain chips move closer to the clinic.
In 2006, two paralyzed patients received experimental neural implants developed by technology startup Cyberkinetics that translate brain activity directly into action. (In 2004, Matthew Nagle, severely paralyzed from a spinal-cord injury, became the first person to test a neural implant, also using technology from Cyberkinetics. See “Implanting Hope.”) Both patients–one with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease, and the other with brain-stem stroke, a particularly devastating type of stroke that paralyzes the body but leaves the mind intact–quickly learned to employ the device, controlling a computer cursor and even a wheelchair just by using their thoughts. (See “Piloting a Wheelchair with the Power of the Mind.”) John Donoghue, a Brown neuroscientist and Cyberkinetics’s founder, and his colleagues are now collaborating with another team of scientists to create a wireless device that directly stimulates muscle; it may one day allow paralyzed patients to move their limbs. (See “A Brain Chip to Control Paralyzed Limbs.”)

Uncovering the genetic mysteries of disease.
Two gene-chip makers released new chips this year that cansimultaneously detect 500,000 or more specific genetic variations, allowing scientists to hunt for the genetic causes of disease faster than ever before. A number of studies of complex genetic diseases, such as autism and Alzheimer’s, are now in the works, with results expected next year. (See “A Massive Search for Autism Genes Begins” and “Searching for Disease Genes Gets Easier.”) Scientists say the studies, which scan the entire genome for variants, could uncover unexpected sources of disease. For example, one such study of age-related macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in people older than 55 in the United States) highlighted genes involved in the function of the immune system rather than genes specific to the eyes or brain.

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