Geneticists expect major breakthroughs in 2016

Gene-editing advances may lead to increased understanding of brains and guts

‘As the microbiome field emerges from its teenage years full of exuberance and promise, reality is hitting in as to how we target it to maintain health and prevent disease.’ Illustration: Thinkstock

‘As the microbiome field emerges from its teenage years full of exuberance and promise, reality is hitting in as to how we target it to maintain health and prevent disease.’ Illustration: Thinkstock

 

Breakthroughs in health research tend not to happen overnight. Discoveries and technologies can take years, even decades, to deliver benefits.

So what emerging technologies and trends will excite biomedical researchers this year?

In the early 2000s sequencing a human genome was heralded as a major milestone in biological research.

Today, large-scale projects are under way in several countries, and 2016 seems likely to be the year when we go from having a few thousand human genomes sequenced to tens or even hundreds of thousands, according to neurogeneticist Prof Kevin Mitchell of Trinity College Dublin.

“Having that many genomes sequenced will give us enormous power to track the effects of the rare mutations we all carry, which likely play a major role in influencing many of our traits and in causing diseases, including conditions like autism and schizophrenia,” he says.

Gene-editing technologies are heating up too, including Crispr/Cas9, a research tool that is currently the subject of a patent battle.

“We are already seeing the impact of the new Crispr/Cas9 genome editing in research, and the start of its clinical development for gene therapy for various disorders,” says Mitchell.

“Gene editing will be a key to moving from the identification of mutations causing diseases in human patients to working out the mechanisms leading to specific symptoms.”

Manipulating brain circuits

Mitchell is particularly excited about another technology called optogenetics, which uses light to manipulate brain circuits in research.

“Its application has already led to many new insights into how neural circuits are organised to carry out specific operations,” he says.

“And it will enable ever more sophisticated methods to reverse-engineer the nervous system, providing new tools to peer inside the black box.”

Recent years have seen a spotlight on micro-organisms, with findings that the “microbiome” – the bacteria, fungi and viruses on and in our bodies and in the environment – is entwined with health. That trend looks set to continue.

“The microbiome field has reached a maturity over the past decade and is touching all areas of medicine and far beyond,” says Prof John Cryan of University College Cork and APC Microbiome Institute.

“However, as it emerges from its teenage years full of exuberance, hype and promise, reality is hitting as to how do we target it to maintain health and prevent disease.”

Cryan is interested in the connections between gut microbes and brain health, but says we have much yet to learn about those links.

“This year will see a focus on such efforts and in the clinical translation of a lot of exciting work that has emanated from animal research.

“Moreover, we should see studies investigating the relative contributions of the microbiome to disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, which have been understudied to date.”

Emerging technologies hold promise for human health.

“We need technologies that prevent chronic disease or help us manage them, and that decrease hospital visits and costs per patient, and we need technologies that are user-friendly,” says Prof Christine Loscher, who directs the health technologies hub at Dublin City University.

“So 2016 needs to be the year that companies who want to develop health technologies involve patients in design and development, and companies have to evaluate whether their technology will actually have an impact on how we provide healthcare.”