A year in biomedicine

2013 has been a year with major advances in biomedicine.

In April, President Obama announced an ambitious federal initiative to map the activity of all the neurons in a brain circuit or, ideally, a whole brain. Monitoring thousands of neurons simultaneously could help neuroscientists understand the biological origin of cognition and perception and speed the development of treatments for disorders such as autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

This year, the FDA approved the first artificial retina prosthetic for use in the United States following the California-made device’s European approval in 2011.

2013 also brought to light a three-dimensional bit of brain tissue, grown from stem cells in a lab, which could be used to study brain function and dysfunction and to potentially screen new medications for toxicity and efficacy. A new type of deep-brain stimulator was implanted into a patient for the first time this year. Deep-brain stimulators are used to deliver therapeutic electric pulses to treat disorders ranging from Parkinson’s to obsessive-compulsive disorder, disorders that many remain difficult to treat.

Researchers developing gene therapies continued to see positive news this year. In March, NIH researchers announced that a two-year-old child infected with HIV at birth may have been cured of the virus.

Genetics has also been a source of news. The latest hit headlines in late November, when the FDA ordered personal genetics company 23andMe to stop selling its genetic analysis test.

A more detailed compilation of the year about to end biomedical stories can be found here.


Genes are not patentable

Last Thursday the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that natural human genes, even isolated from the human body, cannot be patented, a decision that scientists, doctors, patients and civil rights campaigners celebrate because it removes a major barrier to medical care and innovation.

The court said that human DNA is a “product of nature”, a basic tool of scientific and technological work, thereby placing it beyond the domain of patent protection. The resolution strikes down patents held by Myriad Genetics Inc, a Utah based company, on two BRCA1 and BRCA1 genes linked to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The ruling represents a major shift in the law and will have a profound effect on the biotechnology and drug industry. It will allow new companies and laboratories to enter the market on genetic testing reducing the costs and making easier to develop new combinations of tests and therapies tailored to each person’s unique genetic makeup.

However, the court limited its’ ruling. It held that synthetic DNA, forms of DNA that have been manipulated in the lab in a way that modifies their natural state, could be patented.

The decision resolves one of the most important and complex disputes in a generation involving the intersection of science, law and commerce. The issue has gained increasing importance as scientists make progress in identifying specific genes, or mutations, linked to a variety of diseases. The full text of the decision is available here [in English] and here an in deep feature about the resolution and the decade-long conflict with human genes patents [in Spanish].

The True Revolution in Medicine

The Web Health Awards recognize high-quality digital health resources for consumers and health professionals. Because of the dynamic nature of digital health resources, the Web Health Awards competition is held twice each year: Winter/Spring and Summer/Fall.

In the Winter/Spring 2013 Competition, one of the winners has been Eric Topol MD [Editor-in-Chief of Medscape] and Craig Venter’s [founder and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc and one of the most accomplished scientists of our era] conversation about the True Revolution in Medicine. They both discuss how genomics is reshaping medicine, from sequencing tumors to better diagnose and treat cancer to identify the microbes living within the body and their roles in health and disease, to better ways to make vaccines etc.

You can watch the talk or read the transcript here.