Biotech experts' top five trends in 2017

Some of the most exciting developments happened on the single-cell level, at the intersection of genetics and computer science.

We matched our experts' answers with our database and looked at how many more people read about these trends compared to 2016. Here are the results:

1. Single-cell RNA-sequencing


99.78% increase in reads from 2016 to 2017

Just like snowflakes, no cell is the same. Single-cell genome sequencing shows how individual cells differ in their genetic makeup. Single-cell ribonucleic acid-sequencing (scRNA-seq) goes one step further: it looks at the RNA, the nonhereditary genetic construction manual that cells use to control the production of proteins.

Conventional methods of RNA sequencing look at many thousands of cells and average out the differences. Now that scientists are looking at single cells’ RNA, they are identifying new, previously unknown cell types. Among their discoveries this year were a new breast cell type, six new dendritic and four new monocyte subtypes.


2. CRISPR/Cas9


68.03% increase in reads from 2016 to 2017

CRISPR/Cas9 continued to make the headlines this year. This gene editing technology mimics the way bacteria protect themselves against viruses. It uses a synthetic guide RNA that finds the target where the genome should be cut, and the Cas9 protein, an endonuclease enzyme, which makes the cut. This cut edits the genome, consequently changing the instruction manual that’s encoded in it. This change will be passed down to the next generation.

Recently, in perhaps the biggest of the many leaps the technology has made this year, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found a way to also edit Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) using CRISPR. RNA encodes information the cell uses to function, but no hereditary information. This technology is called CRISPR/Cas13 and may allow for gene therapy without passing on changes, and possible mistakes, to the next generation.

ResearchGate News highlight: Video is encoded onto the DNA of living bacteria using CRISPR

To the left are a series of frames showing the mare "Anna G." galloping, which were encoded into nucleotides and captured sequentially over time by the CRISPR adaptation system in living bacteria. To the right are the frames after multiple generations of bacterial growth, recovered by sequencing bacterial genomes. Credit: Seth Shipman.

3. Cancer immunotherapy


67.56% increase in reads from 2016 to 2017

Reuters reports that more than 2000 immunotherapy drugs are now in the pipeline to fight cancer. These drugs train your immune system to either find cancer cells, which are usually great at hiding from it, or boost your immune system overall to better destroy them.

A big breakthrough for immunotherapy this year was US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of CAR-T therapy for market. Novartis developed this immunotherapy drug that was the first ever gene therapy to get market clearance. CAR-T therapy is for children with advanced leukemia, and genetically reprograms patients’ T cells to track down cancer cells in the body.

ResearchGate News highlight: Personalized cancer vaccines show promise in first human trials

Image: Figure 1 : Manipulating the immune response to tumours. Credit: Nature News and Views by Cornelis J. M. Melief.

4. Regenerative medicine


40.70% increase in reads from 2016 to 2017

Repairing parts of our body that were previously irreparable is what regenerative medicine is all about. Scientists in this field are using therapeutic stem cells, tissue engineering and artificial organs to regrow, repair or replace damaged organs or tissues.

In November of this year, researchers published a study detailing the making of a fully functional epidermis for a seven-year-old boy who was suffering from a life-threatening genetic skin disorder called junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB). The boy’s LAMB3 gene was not functioning properly so doctors took a small sample of his skin and used a virus to inject a functioning LAMB3 gene into the sample's skin cells. They then grew this skin in the lab and carefully transplanted it back onto the boy. His new epidermis shows regenerative medicine’s potential to cure the incurable using genetically corrected stem cells.

ResearchGate News highlight: Blind tadpoles learn visually with eye grafted on tail

Blind tadpoles with eyes grafted onto their tails were able to process visual information after being treated with a small molecule neurotransmitter drug. Credit: Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University.

5. Bioelectricity


35.97% increase in reads from 2016 to 2017

All our cells are under current: negative and positive ions on each side of a membrane create the so-called transmembrane potential. Cells use these bioelectric potentials to support or control metabolic processes.

In 2017, we learned that this cellular electrical signaling of non-neural cells can be manipulate to help frogs, and someday hopefully humans, to fight infection. Michael Levin, and his colleagues at Tufts University, used ion-channel and neurotransmitter approved for humans to make the cells’ interior more negatively charged and augmented tadpoles’ innate immune reaction against infection and injury.

In another study, Levin used bioelectricity to make a flatworm regrow a second head in place of a tail. Their results suggested that bioelectricity may be an additional factor to genes in animals’ body plans, potentially making it a promising tool for regenerative medicine, too (see trend 4).

ResearchGate News highlight: Bacteria communicate with other species to recruit them

Electrical messages sent by biofilms (in green, at left) recruit new members (in red, at right) to the microbial community. Photos by Suel Lab, UC San Diego.

Thank you to our experts: Michael Levin from Tufts University, Anna Rising from Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Monica M Laronda from Northwestern University, Ali Khademhosseini from UCLA, and Xiaoyang Wu from University of Chicago.

Featured image courtesy of HCC Public Information Office.