From the spread of Zika virus to a nasty dispute over the gene-editing technology CRISPR, 2016 has been a fascinating year for science and medicine. But past is also prologue, and a look back at some of this past year’s STAT coverage gives us a sense of what the next year could bring. Here are synopses of several stories that provide key background for the year to come, along with links if you want to go deeper.
1. Scientists are mapping the way toward the creation of a human genome from scratch
The organizers of the project expect its very existence to drive down the cost of splicing together the chemical “letters” that constitute DNA into whole genomes — eventually producing a man-made version of the complete genetic blueprint for a human being.
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2. The fight over who owns the rights to CRISPR is expected to come to a head
It won’t be easy for patent office judges to decide just how obvious it was to move from one team’s editing of DNA in a test tube to another’s doing it in eukaryotic cells, the kind in animals from mice to people. The stakes are high.
3. Watch out for more big-dollar biotech deals that may obscure a subdued reality
By touting a towering sum for one agreement, however speculative, a biotech company might be able to exert some leverage the next time it seeks a partner from big pharma. The problem: Sometimes a billion dollars is not a billion dollars.
4. Zika sparked global alarm in 2016. Could the world see a vaccine in 2017?
Development is actually occurring at warp-speed rates in comparison with the development of other vaccines, with more clinical trials scheduled in 2017. But when the trials are done, will there be a market for a Zika vaccine?
5. We’ll see more fights over reproductive rights. Here’s a look at one tactic from abortion opponents.
Lawmakers are seeking to introduce personhood bills in Wisconsin, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi. The first step in some states may be fetal tax credits for expectant parents.
6. An accelerated process to approve new drugs (advocates hope)
Behind the new 21st Century Cures Act passed by Congress in December, there’s a dirty secret: many provisions don’t provide a clear path for implementation. That said, there are set deadlines on moving toward faster drug approvals.
7. As deaths mount, will the public learn more about how deadly opioid painkillers were marketed?
The aggressive marketing of OxyContin has been blamed for helping to trigger a national epidemic of opioid abuse. A judge’s ruling to unseal records sought by STAT that could shed more light on the issue will be reviewed by a Kentucky appeals court in 2017.
8. Promise and peril: One promising cancer therapy shows the curvy route toward FDA approval
CAR-T experiments come with major promise, but they also come with a risk: The treatment has to nearly kill you to save you.
9. Scientists consider ways to harness the power of gene drive
Gene drives enable genetic modifications to a single organism to spread rapidly through the entire population by ensuring that targeted genes are passed on to nearly all offspring. But some scientists are urging caution, noting the consequences of even controlled experiments to, say, prevent infectious diseases such as malaria may not be fully understood.
10. How will drug makers fare in Trump’s new Washington?
Donald Trump’s ascent in Washington is generating whispers at the highest levels of industry about whether the Republican Party will remain a staunch ally of drug companies. Is Trump’s criticism of the drug industry an aberration — or is he a sign of things to come?
Readers, are there other critical areas you’d suggest we focus on in the year to come? Let us know in the comments section below.