Many of the biggest science breakthroughs of 2021 centered, unsurprisingly, around the story of the year: Covid-19. The entries to STAT Madness, our yearly bracket-style competition to choose the prior year’s most exciting biomedical discovery, reflected the priorities of science and humanity at large. Still, last year’s winners developed unique solutions for herpes and diabetes, a sign that among this highly competitive field, it’s anyone’s game. The first round of popular voting begins Tuesday, March 1, when the first-round pairings will be revealed, along with descriptions of all the entrants’ research.
Buoyed by the development and approval of safe and effective vaccines to protect against serious disease from Covid-19, this year’s contenders dove deeper into antiviral treatments and other pandemic solutions. Others expanded horizons in gene therapy, microbiome research, and surgery.
The round of 64 — selected from almost 100 entries — contains a batch of studies that address the problems created by a constantly evolving coronavirus and the threat of vaccine-escaping variants. Solutions put forward for this stage of the pandemic include an intranasal antiviral that targets a slow-to-evolve portion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a mask with embedded biosensors, primed to detect viral particles at the push of a button. Another entry highlights the development and testing of molnupiravir, Merck’s antiviral pill approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year to treat Covid-19 cases.
Other research breakthroughs that made the field reflect paradigm shifts in medicine and diagnostics. Scientists tapped into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, screening for non-hallucinogenic antidepressants; others probed the role of fungi in the gut microbiome, offering further evidence that certain microbes go hand-in-hand with unhealthy immune systems. Yet another contending team harnessed artificial intelligence to predict breast cancer risk with less biased results than previous deep-learning methods. Gene editing, meanwhile, continues to be fine-tuned: Entries cover an approach to use CRISPR on hundreds of genes simultaneously, a “dimmer switch” to regulate protein expression of edited genes, and epigenetic modifications to turn genes on and off entirely and pass the changes down to future generations.
No bracket is complete without wild cards; these entries’ originality shone through in their nominations. Greasy hair inspired one team to create a cure for obesity in mice. Another devised a microneedle patch for administering shots without the need of a trained professional. Entire cell processes were recreated in artificial, non-living cell-mimics the size of the real things. And one team performed the first full-tracheal transplant, lowering the recipient’s risk of death from accidental suffocation and giving her a new lease on life, while another implanted a microelectrode array in the visual cortex of a woman who had been blind for 16 years and restored rudimentary vision.
STAT Madness — which is modeled on college basketball’s March Madness tournaments — is a bracket-style competition, but one with a not-so-hidden ulterior motive: Scanning through the entries should give readers an appreciation of the ingenuity and breadth of biomedical research being pursued around the U.S. Voting on www.statnews.com will continue through six single-elimination rounds before the winner of the popular vote is announced on April 4.
You can follow the action on Twitter using the hashtag #STATMadness.
Here are the teams selected for STAT Madness 2022. (There are fewer than 64 teams listed because some institutions have more than one entry.)
Baylor College of Medicine
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School
Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Georgia State University
Institute for Systems Biology
Lahey Hospital & Medical Center
McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research
Mount Sinai Health System
New York University
NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing
NYU School of Global Public Health
Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
Saint Louis University
Stony Brook University
Texas A&M University College of Medicine
UC San Diego School of Medicine
UMass Chan Medical School
University of California, Davis
University of California, Irvine School of Medicine
University of Chicago Medicine
University of Florida
University of Iowa
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Pennsylvania
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
University of Utah Health
University of Utah John A. Moran Eye Center
University of Virginia School of Medicine
Weill Cornell Medicine
Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University