Three Medicine-Related Advances Make MIT’s List of Breakthrough Technologies

Report offers preview of tomorrow’s medical miracles

Three medicine-related advances have made this year’s list of top 10 breakthrough technologies issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They are: brain implants for reversing paralysis; gene therapy; and the cell atlas.

Reversing Paralysis

According to the MIT report, scientists are making remarkable progress at using brain implants to restore the freedom of movement that spinal cord injuries take away.

“In recent years, lab animals and a few people have controlled computer cursors or robotic arms with their thoughts, thanks to a brain implant wired to machines,” the authors write. “Now researchers are taking a significant next step toward reversing paralysis once and for all. They are wirelessly connecting the brain-reading technology directly to electrical stimulators on the body … so that people’s thoughts can again move their limbs.”

A $100 million center in Geneva, Switzerland, is working to solve the remaining technical obstacles to neurotechnologies. The head of the center is John Donoghue, an American who led the early development of brain implants in the United States. One of Donoghue’s top priorities is a “neurocomm,” an ultra-compact wireless device that can collect data from the brain at Internet speed. “A radio inside your head,” Donoghue calls it, and “the most sophisticated brain communicator in the world.” The matchbox-size prototypes are made of biocompatible titanium with a sapphire window.

Gene Therapy 2.0

Researchers have been chasing the dream of gene therapy for decades, according to the report. The idea is simple: use an engineered virus to deliver healthy copies of a gene into patients with defective versions. But until recently, research had produced more disappointments than successes. The entire field was slowed in 1999 when an 18-year-old patient with a liver disease died in a gene-therapy experiment.

But now two gene therapies for inherited diseases—Strimvelis for a form of severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) and Glybera for a disorder that makes fat build up in the bloodstream—have won regulatory approval in Europe. In the United States, Spark Therapeutics is developing a gene therapy for a progressive form of blindness.

Overall, researchers are conducting clinical trials of gene therapies for approximately 40 to 50 different diseases, the report says.

In addition to treating disorders caused by malfunctions in single genes, scientists are looking to engineer these therapies for more-common diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart failure, and cancer.

The Cell Atlas

The third health-related advance on MIT’s top 10 list is the cell atlas––a “mega-project” to individually scrutinize millions of cells using the most powerful tools in modern genomics and cell biology. The project’s objective is to construct the first comprehensive map of human cells, which will provide scientists with a sophisticated new model of biology that could speed the search for new drugs.

To perform the task of cataloguing the 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, an international consortium of scientists from the U.S., United Kingdom, Sweden, Israel, the Netherlands, and Japan is being assembled to assign each cell a molecular signature and to give each type of cell a “ZIP code” in the three-dimensional space of the human body, according to the report.

In September 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife made the cell atlas the inaugural target of a $3 billion donation to medical research.

Source: MIT Technology Review; March 6, 2017.