As 2021 draws to a close, The Scientist has published its top 10 technical innovations in biotechnology, as selected by an independent panel of judges. Here, we summarize the winners and highlight our recent coverage of these topics on BioTechniques.com throughout the year.
Mesmerizing microscopy and impressive imaging
The 2g miniaturized microscope nVue, from Inscopix (CA, USA), took the top spot on the list. The fluorescence-dependant microscope can monitor neuronal activity in the brains of living organisms from two different neuronal cell types. What’s more, the implantable microscope can image deeper tissues than similar head-mountable mini-microscopes that are limited to investigating activity in the surface of the cortex. The nVue system was primarily selected due to its ability to simultaneously study cell populations of live organisms that are able to exhibit natural behaviors, free of the constraints typically imposed by this type of imaging.
A full-body MRI scan that only takes 15 minutes to complete and can be combined with medical records, genetics data and test results from urine, blood and saliva to generate a ‘digital twin’ of a patient, occupies position five. The Gemini platform and Mark 1 scanner from Q Bio (CA, USA) is only currently available to a select few, but as the technology becomes more practical the thinking is that annual updates of the digital twin could flag any small changes in its composition. These changes could then be combined with mathematical models to determine the patient’s health and catch diseases before they become serious. Look out for our upcoming interview with Editorial Board member Leroy Hood (Institute for Systems Biology, WA, USA) on the vital role that this kind of predictive medicine will play in the future of healthcare.
Distinguished drug discovery solutions
Coming in a close second and my pick of the bunch, is the CN Bio (Cambridge, UK) PhysioMimix OOC Multi-Organ Microphysiological System. This system enables multiple organ-on-a-chip devices, each representing different organs or tissues, to be connected, ultimately recreating human biological systems. This technology will enable researchers to examine the impact of a prospective drug or potential pathogenic molecule in a model that is far more representative of actual human biology, as opposed to siloed organ models.
Only by gaining a greater understanding of the full, system-wide impact of disease and the holistic effect of a potential therapeutic, can drug discovery continue to advance at an increasing pace. Find out more about the current role of organ on a chip systems in drug discovery in our recent panel discussion: The evolution of advanced cell models and their analysis.
Another enduring challenge in drug discovery is presented by the blood–brain barrier (BBB). The tightly controlled and highly impermeable layer of cells that separate brain tissue from the contents of neural blood vessels, makes it incredibly difficult to design drugs that can penetrate the BBB and act within the brain.
The Emulate (MA, USA) Brain-Chip, featuring at four on the list, models this barrier with two channels, one lined with stem-cell derived endothelial cells that mimic a blood vessel and one lined with astrocytes, pericytes, microglia and neurons that represents the brain. These channels meet and run parallel to each other, allowing researchers to run solutions through the “blood vessel” channel and observe whether molecules pass from one channel to the next and how they interact with different cells and structures that compose the BBB. For more information on the BBB and the techniques used to study it, check out our infographic: Techniques for studying the blood-brain barrier and video: Investigating the blood-brain barrier.
A tiny fluorescence microscope that can be mounted onto mice with 3D-printed see-through skulls has opened new avenues for neuroimaging studies.
Single-cell and spatial success
Unsurprisingly, spatial biology techniques featured several times on the list, first with Vizgen’s (MA, USA) MERSCOPE, in at third and Resolve Bioscience’s (Monheim am Rhein, Germany) Molecular Cartography single-cell spatial analysis platform in the tenth spot. Both systems utilize fluorescence in situ hybridization and detect individual RNA transcripts from intact tissues. The main difference at this stage is that Molecular Cartography remains a mail-in service, whereas the MERSCOPE system is available to purchase, with a staggering price tag of USD$300,000. Typical costs for the Molecular Cartography service amount to USD$4500 and includes the identification and visualization of up to 100 gene transcripts. To find out more about the use of Molecular Cartography in a neuroscience study, check out our recent webinar Navigating the brain using spatial transcriptomics in health, disease and development
Meanwhile, in the single-cell space, 10x Genomics (CA, USA) returns to The Scientists’ list for the third year in the row with Chromium X, in at number six. This machine is capable of separating up to 1 million cells into individual droplets containing a single cell, a gel bead with a barcode and a reagent. The barcoded droplets, referred to as GEMs, can be tracked throughout their later use so that results can be anchored to a specific cell. The system is compatible with a number of assays that can analyze each cell’s gene expression patterns, epigenetic profile or conduct immune cell profiling. To learn more about the application of Chromium X in immunological studies, check out our spotlight on immunology.
Another single-cell system reliant on the production of small, trackable droplets, featuring at eight on the list, is Mission Bio’s (CA, USA) Tapestri Single-cell Multi-omics Solution. These droplets contain a barcoded bead, the reagents needed for DNA sequencing and antibodies targeted to cell-surface proteins. DNA sequencing and analysis and cell surface protein characterization are then combined in one workflow that can be conducted on up to 10,000 cells simultaneously. To hear more about the value of single-cell multiomic data, check out our podcast: Talking Techniques | Revealing the regulome: using multiomic approaches to explore epigenetics and DNA expression.
Introducing our In Focus on neuroscience, this video provides an overview of the blood-brain barrier and demonstrates how it could be implicated in different diseases of the central nervous system.
From COVID-19 to CRISPR
The seventh position on the list is remarkably simple, yet brilliant: The Native Antigen Company’s (Oxford, UK) SARS-CoV-2 Neutralization Assay Development Kit quantifies the neutralization ability of antibodies in a sample with a color change readout. To do this, synthetic versions of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and the mammalian cell surface receptor ACE2 are paired with an ELISA platform. By avoiding the need for any live virus, the kit sidesteps the requirement for BSL3 lab conditions for its operation and its synthetic components make it efficient and readily updatable for new variants, making this technology versatile and accessible for a wide range of labs. This ELISA will play a massive role in examining the extent of immunity conferred by vaccines against different variants and over time. Take a break with our coffee chat: Understanding COVID-19 detection, immunology and pathogenicity with ELISAs, to find out more about the role of ELISAs in the fight against COVID-19.
Finally, Cardea Bio (CA, USA) has provided an update on the existing CRISPR-Chip, which could rapidly detect disease-associated sequence variants and successful transgene insertions without the need for amplification. The new CRISPR-SNP-Chip, replaces the Cas protein, used in the original to capture and hold DNA close to the chip’s transistor, with a more sensitive iteration that allows for the detection of SNPs. This dramatically improves the chip’s utility in a clinical diagnostic setting. For more on how CRISPR is being used in diagnostics check out our recent article: CRISPR-based diagnostics: expanding the toolbox against COVID-19.
As the year draws to a close and we begin to look forward to 2022, we can’t wait to see the impacts that these innovations deliver and what new technologies will arise.
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