The Decade’s Most Important Biomedical Discovery

12/18/09

The past decade has been rich in biological and biomedical advances. The decade opened with the reports of the large number of new genes within the human genome that encode small non-coding RNAs, or microRNAs. We have learned that these RNAs a) control at least half of all genes, b) are dysfunctional in many cancers and c) are critical for many normal processes. In a recent study, microRNAs were used to control Hepatitis C Virus infection. In fact, the development of small RNA therapy based on RNA interference has advanced over the decade with clinical trials in many diseases.

However, the most important discovery of the past decade is that of “induced pluripotent stem cells” or “iPS cells,” which are adult cells that have been coaxed back into a embryonic-stem-cell-like state. The discovery of how to do that coaxing, made by Kyoto University’s Shinya Yamanaka in 2006, opened new avenues to consider for future treatment of diseases such as Parkinson Disease and type 1 diabetes—and has also radically changed our understanding of the plasticity of mature cell traits. For example, if any cell in the body can convert into any other cell type, i.e. from a neuronal cell to an immune cell, then classifications and treatment of cancers by cell type may be misleading. We are entering a new frontier in determining the nature of systems of genes and their proteins that control cell state and cell growth properties.

[Editor's Note: As the decade comes to an end, we've asked Xconomists around the country to weigh in with the top innovations they've seen in their respective fields the past 10 years, or the top disruptive technologies that will impact the next decade.]




Dr. Phillip A. Sharp is an Institute Professor at MIT, and formerly the director of the Institute's Center for Cancer Research, the head of its Department of Biology, and the founding director of the McGovern Institute. Dr. Sharp won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on "discontinuous genes" in mammalian cells. Follow @

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  • Bobby

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