These 5 biomedical advances gave 2022 a sci-fi feel

Big steps include pig to human organ transplants and synthetic embryos

a natural embryo and a synthetic embryo against a black background

A natural mouse embryo (top) and synthetic mouse embryo (bottom) at about eight days of development show similar brain formation (bright pink and orange represent different regions in the brain).

Amadei and Handford

COVID-19 may continue to dominate headlines, but this year’s biomedical advances weren’t all about “the Rona.” 2022 saw fruitful and seemingly fantastical research that could one day mean good news for patients.

Growing synthetic embryos

Two reports this year revealed how to fabricate the early stages of mammalian life. With a bit of laboratory wizardry, scientists mingled mouse stem cells, which self-assembled to spawn what appears to be a kind of fledgling embryo — no egg or sperm required. As they grow, these stem cell–derived synthetic embryos can form proto hearts, brains and guts. But the similarity to natural mouse embryos fades quickly. The synthetic and natural versions match up for only about eight days of development. Still, studying similar clusters of human stem cells might one day offer a way to probe the development of human embryos without relying on the real thing.

Next-level organ transplants

Organ transplants have started mirroring science fiction. In January, an ailing 57-year-old man received a heart from a genetically engineered pig and survived for two months with the transplanted organ (SN: 3/12/22, p. 26). Other surgeries plugged pig hearts into the bodies of brain-dead patients, a step that prepares researchers for future clinical trials (SN Online: 7/12/22). And a high-tech system hooked up to pigs’ bodies an hour after death helped keep organs functioning. The technology, which might one day preserve human organs slated for surgery, pumps a mix of real and artificial blood through the animals (SN: 9/10/22, p. 12).

a photo of surgeons working to transplant a pig heart
In July, a surgical team at NYU Langone Health transplanted a pig heart into a brain-dead patient, part of a larger effort to evaluate the potential of using animal organs for transplantation.JOE CARROTTA FOR NYU LANGONE HEALTH

Epstein-Barr’s link to MS

Scientists dropped an Epstein-Barr bombshell early this year when they suggested that the virus is the main cause of the neurodegenerative disease multiple sclerosis. Infection with the virus greatly upped the odds of later developing MS, an analysis of millions of U.S. military recruits found. The link between the virus and MS, which scientists had suspected but never outlined so clearly, might guide the way to potential MS treatments — or even, one day, vaccines to prevent the disease (SN: 8/13/22, p. 14).

an electron micrograph showing Epstein-Barr viruses emerging from an immune system B cell
Epstein-Barr viruses (red) emerge from an immune system B cell in this colorized electron micrograph.STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/SCIENCE SOURCE

A complete human genome, finally

Researchers announced back in 2003 that they had read all the genetic info packed into strands of human DNA — the first sequence of the human genome. But that genome was not quite complete; some tangled-up lengths of DNA remained difficult to decipher. This year, a team tied up the loose ends. In March, the researchers reported a new and improved human genome — this time, complete from end to end (SN: 4/23/22, p. 6).

an illustration of shining square puzzle pieces with G, A, T or C falling into place on a puzzle board
New technologies have helped researchers decipher the final, challenging stretches of DNA bases in the human genome.ERNESTO DEL AGUILA III/NHGRI

AI predicts protein structures

Artificial intelligence has taken structural biology to warp speed. A deep-learning program called AlphaFold has now predicted the 3-D shapes of more than 200 million proteins (SN: 9/24/22, p. 16). Though the shapes are not lab-verified structures, the massive dataset could help researchers studying health and disease in all sorts of organisms, from humans to honeybees. Now, looking up a protein’s predicted structure is almost as easy as typing it into Google, according to the cofounder of the AI company that created AlphaFold.

an image of a protein structure
Alphafold predicted this structure (blue is highest confidence, red is lowest) for a honeybee protein called vitellogenin that helps protect against bacterial infections.Deep Mind

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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