While headlines in 2016 were largely dominated by the tumultuous political climate, notable celebrity deaths (RIP Princess Leia), and myriad global crises, there were plenty of scientific developments that caught our attention. An HIV vaccine was cleared for clinical trials, Zika continues to spread, and we finally have images of gravitational waves.
As the year comes to a close, here are five story lines to continue following in 2017.
- The Heroes of CRISPR and the CRISPR/Cas-9 patent dispute
The CRISPR/Cas-9 ownership debate is fairly reminiscent of siblings running to their parents for the front seat in a car ride: she called first dibs in the living room, but he got to the driver first. Media attention boomed after Cell published MIT biologist Eric S. Lander’s article The Heroes of CRISPR. Many readers, including Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, disagreed with his depiction of the gene-splicing tool’s history, especially in combination with his Broad Institute affiliation and the ongoing patent battle.
At this point, it’s not a question of whether or not the technology will be patented, but when, and what hurdles or royalty costs researchers outside of the winning institution will face.
- EpiPen price hike
After the Martin Shkreli debacle of 2015, sociopolitical awareness and debate concerning pharmaceutical pricing and ethics is more intense than ever. Under manufacturer Mylan’s ownership, the price of an EpiPen two-pack rose from $267 to $600 in just the past 3 years. Mylan isn’t the only pharmaceutical company raising drug prices, but its lack of competition in both emerging and existing alternatives has drawn criticism for being unethically arbitrary and disregarding consumer reliance. Mylan has since released coupons for their injectors and a $300 generic, but it remains to be seen if these efforts have redeemed the company in the eyes of consumers and lawmakers.
For his part, the so-called “Pharma Bro” Shkreli supports Mylan’s pricing, and has expressed willingness to testify in their defense.
Theranos’ early fingerstick blood testing device promised to revolutionize diagnostics. Although that may be the case in the future, significant setbacks such as CMS sanctions and CLIA license revocation, critical partnership termination, a criminal investigation, and a 40% workforce reduction rapidly eradicated their credibility and capital. It is still possible that their line of miniLab technology will fulfill the hopes of their micro-testing prototype, but that diagnostics empire will be put on hold.
Recreational marijuana legalization in California and Massachusetts
Although California and Massachusetts aren’t the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, they house three massive biotech clusters, all of which have preliminary entry into the industry due to both states’ long-standing medical marijuana legislation. It is too early to tell exactly how a wider consumer base will affect some of the industry’s existing struggles such as federal regulations, banking, and investor confidence, but startups’ hopes are high (pun intended).
21st Century Cures Act and the Cancer Moonshot Initiative
The 21st Century Cures Act is bipartisan legislation that allocates training, funds, and awards to biomedical researchers and national institutions, most likely to play out as a rejuvenating shot to academia and innovative startups. In addition to provisions for HHS and CMS, the bill includes increased funds for the NIH and the development of a Capstone Grant program to incentivize and accelerate innovative healthcare.
Additionally, the executive branch recently announced the execution of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative to further oversee and encourage oncology research. Spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden, the initiative promotes collaboration between the National Cancer Advisory Board and the newly-created Cancer Moonshot Task Force to advocate scientifically-sound ambitions and goals.
Any other biotech news stories from 2016 we should have mentioned? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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