Frontiers of biotech

Today and tomorrow, it’s time for a Hidden Gems double feature. We’re taking a look at some of the most important biotech stories from the last few weeks. However, instead of breathlessly reporting breaking news, our aim is to show progress on a number of major trends. Each of these dimensions of biotech may unlock a century-defining revolution – and they’re just the kind of thing you should be looking to profit from.

GM: upgrading our crops with biotech

We’ve had GM crops for years, and there have been plenty of smart ideas about how to use them. Golden rice was supposed to cure Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries – but never made it to market. Bt cotton was supposed to deal with pests – but they quickly became resistant. Now, however, it appears we may have hit the GM jackpot.

Plants are fundamentally a technology for turning solar energy into chemical energy, so anything which makes that process more efficient is going to be a huge boon for humanity. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have modified tobacco to respond quicker to shady conditions, by improving the way the plants control a kind of internal sunshade. This means they can potentially use sunshine 20% more efficiently. That gain is closely approximated by the 15% increase in growth the researchers measured. This isn’t just about making cheaper cigarettes – tobacco can be used as a fuel crop. Furthermore, the mechanism could potentially be applied to other species. You might wonder why nature hasn’t come up with this already, but wild plants are often more worried about nutrients than sunshine. (Graun/Science)

Alzheimer’s: getting to first BACE

Diseases of senescence are becoming increasingly important to public health. Alzheimer’s has recently overtaken heart disease as the UK’s biggest killer. It’s still a mysterious disease, and the fundamental biology is only partially understood. There are a large number of potential treatments working their way through clinical trials – but the process is risky. One such testing programme is Merck’s work on BACE1 inhibitors (namely Verubecestat). This drug was associated with drops of up to 90pc in plaque-forming beta-amyloid proteins, which are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Whether that results in improved outcomes for patients is the subject of future clinical trials. Many promising compounds fail in trials – and biotech investors should always expect more tears than cheers. Eli Lilly and Roche have both binned similar drugs, after trials troubles. (Fierce Biotech/Science Translational Medicine – inaccessible abstract)

Longevity: senescent cells treatment

Old cells don’t always die, but instead often adopt a state called senescence – meaning that the cell stops dividing. These cells may then become part of a disease process, such as the formation of the fatty arterial plaques that cause heart disease. Controlling the process of senescence, or eliminating senescent cells, may therefore unlock a range of new treatments. This could ultimately give us the key to dramatically improved lifespan – something we’ve covered in an Exponential Investor interview before. One firm working in this space is Unity Biotechnology, which recently secured a $116m investment from a group of investors including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Potentially, these treatments may help a broad range of diseases of ageing thanks to biotech, from osteoarthritis to age-related macular degeneration. (TechCrunch/Science)

Reproductive enhancement: epigenetic sperm test

You’ve surely heard of DNA and genes, but you might not have heard of epigenetics. Crudely, you could imagine DNA as the unchanging hardware of genetics, and epigenetics as the easily-updated biotech software. During your life, you’ll experience all sorts of environmental events, which make epigenetic changes to your genome. These changes affect which genes are expressed. Extreme hunger, smoking and even bullying have been linked to epigenetic changes. These updates don’t just affect your own genes – they can be passed onto your children, too.

Now, it’s becoming possible to read these changes in sperm – unlocking new routes to treat infertility, and to manage the health of future generations. A firm called Episona has just released a product that analyses 480,000 epigenetic loci. Think of this process as being like DNA fingerprinting, but for the epigenome. The aim of this work is to identify men with normal-looking sperm, but who will still have trouble conceiving using IVF. Time, and further research, will show whether this works as well as is hoped. (STAT News/Fertility and Sterility)

Nanobiology: landmine detection

I love technology stories that sound totally sci-fi, and they don’t come much better than this. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have successfully incorporated carbon nanotubes into spinach plants, making them change colour when they detect chemicals in explosives. This is probably a bit slow to be used in an airport – but it’s potentially promising for applications like detecting landmines. An infrared camera, such as on a modified smartphone, is all you need to work out where the mines are. This is a major improvement on the more traditional methods of landmine detection. (MIT/Nature Materials)


Andrew Lockley
Exponential Investor

Click here to read part two of this hidden gems series and discover the biotech breakthroughs transforming investment portfolios.

Category: Genetics and Biotechnology

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