One Eye on the Future
Looking Ahead with the 2017 Blavatnik National Laureates
by Hallie Kapner
Physicist Niels Bohr (among others) said "prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." Just ten years ago, it would have been a stretch for even the most optimistic prognosticator to predict that the iPhone, then a newborn technology, would be in one billion hands or that the human genome could be sequenced affordably in 24 hours. These examples of the dizzying pace of progress are good reminders that while attempts to peer into the future of science and technology are essential for growth and inspiration, reality sometimes exceeds the wildest visions.
The 2017 winners of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, materials scientist Yi Cui, chemist Melanie Sanford, and bioengineer Feng Zhang, are no strangers to vision. Chosen from a pool of more than 300 nominees from universities around the country, this year's Laureates exemplify the kind of fearless thinking that upends norms and breaks boundaries, ultimately bringing revolutionary ideas and advances into reality. Asking any of them to discuss their day-to-day research would provide a fascinating peek into some of the most cutting-edge work in their respective fields, yet just as intriguing are their thoughts on the future. When asked to fast-forward ten or twenty years to discuss what's next in their fields, each readily dove headlong into the world to come, shedding light on achievements that are both probable and possible, then reaching further to describe potential advances that seem far-fetched today, but may be the ultimate achievements of tomorrow.
Ten years is a long time for Feng Zhang, as he recalls that the technology he helped pioneer, CRISPR-Cas9, didn't exist a decade ago. As Zhang, a Core Member of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, talks excitedly about the rapid pace of advancement in the field of genome editing, he highlights that there's still plenty of room for growth. Zhang was among the first to conceive of using CRISPR, an adaptive immune function native to bacteria, as a DNA-editing tool, a breakthrough that has turned the ability to quickly, cheaply, and precisely edit the genomes of plants and animals from science-fiction into an everyday occurrence. From Zhang's point of view, developing the tools was just the beginning — the work of the future is in refining and applying those tools to alleviate suffering and disease.
The advent of rapid, affordable genome sequencing has allowed researchers to identify many of the mutations that cause disease, which fall into two categories: monogenetic diseases, such as Huntington's, caused by a single mutation, and polygenetic diseases, which comprise the majority of illnesses, wherein multiple mutations are implicated. Today, most of the work being done with CRISPR targets monogenetic diseases. Even in those cases, a fix is far more complex than simply cutting and replacing. "The major issue is that we don't know how to repair the mutation efficiently, nor what exactly needs to be done to have a therapeutic consequence," said Zhang. "I think we'll develop techniques for delivering gene therapy to the right tissues, which is still a big challenge." Zhang also projects a future where CRISPR technologies can be adapted to treat patients with diseases so rare that they are often overlooked by the therapeutic pipeline. "The economics don't work for drug companies to focus on rare diseases, but as gene editing becomes more mature, we could feasibly create individualized therapies that would circumvent the typical drug development process," he explained.
But the ultimate CRISPR application — editing multiple genes to treat complex polygenetic diseases — remains the stuff of fantasy. Two decades from now, Zhang expects we'll be much closer. "Even if we have the technology to make multiple genetic changes, we don't know enough about how multiple genes interact in disease at this point," he said, noting that the interplay of different gene variations can produce effects we don't fully understand. "There are variations known to protect people from HIV, but they increase susceptibility to West Nile Virus," he said. "That's just one example — we need a much better understanding of these connections in order to achieve these bigger goals."
Big Ideas from the Smallest Structures
For Yi Cui, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, the buzzword of the future is energy. Specifically, inexpensive, widely-available clean energy, along with new battery technologies that will transform cars and other consumer products as well as the electrical grid itself. Cui, whose research focuses on using nanoscale materials to tackle environmental and energy issues, has several breakthrough technologies to his credit — including a water filtration technology that uses electrified silver nanostructures to puncture viral and bacterial membranes, purifying water faster and more cheaply than chemical treatments, and designs for ultra-long life, low-cost batteries that may pave the way for what Cui sees as the major potential achievement of the next two decades: grid-scale energy storage.
Solar cells have become more efficient and renewable energy costs are dropping, yet energy storage remains the major hurdle for scientists, who recognize both the economic and environmental advantages of a future dominated by clean power. Continual improvements in the energy density of today's batteries will yield rewards in the relatively near term, says Cui, who sides with experts who predict mass adoption of electric vehicles over the next 10-15 years. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're seeing cars that can run 400 miles on a single charge," he said, but the greatest gains in clean energy won't be achieved until batteries can store enough energy to allow for the integration of solar, wind and other renewable power sources into the mainstream electrical grid. "Energy storage is the missing link," Cui said, "and if we can solve that, it will be the most extraordinary achievement we can hope to have in this field in the next 20 or 30 years."
The potential for nanomaterials to help mitigate the impacts of environmental pollution also looms large for Cui. As the global population grows and resource needs increase, he predicts a starring role for nanoscale structures in efforts to purify water and remediate soil pollution, and is developing a nano-driven "desalination battery," which removes salt from seawater using less energy than reverse-osmosis, as well as air and water purification technologies that use nanostructures to capture particulates and pollutants with remarkable speed and efficiency.
The Best Molecule for the Job
In a future envisioned by Melanie Sanford, there will be no compromise to designing molecules for some of the most important chemical tasks in the world, namely medical imaging, drug development, energy production and fields where the characteristics of a chemical reaction, or the process by which a molecule is made or utilized, can mean the difference between mediocre performance and excellence.
Sanford is making this vision a reality, developing customized approaches for the goals of various industries. "Depending on the target for the reaction we're developing, the dreams for the future are different," she said. The pharmaceutical and medical industries are two areas where Sanford believes that astonishing advances will be realized in the coming decade. Among them, the ability to customize the tracer molecules that are crucial to obtaining quality images in positron emission tomography, or PET, scans used in cancer, cardiac and brain diagnostics. "Right now, the tracers used aren't the best or the most appropriate, they're the ones we can make with the limited set of reactions we have for adding a radioactive tag to a molecule," said Sanford. "Ten or twenty years from now, the only constraint will be our imaginations — the reactions and catalysts in development now will allow us to ask, 'What molecule do I want to make to get the best result for this application?' and then be able to make it."
Customization plays an equally important role in another field Sanford sees poised for transformation through the design of novel reactions — agricultural chemicals. Using reactions that yield the desired result, but do so using readily available materials with minimal energy consumption or waste production, would represent significant improvement and a major sustainability overhaul of some of the largest-scale chemical processing activities on earth. "These syntheses are being performed at such a massive scale that waste really matters," said Sanford.
The ability to make the best molecule for the job will be key to making Cui's grid-scale energy storage a reality through new battery technologies. Sanford animatedly described the potential for developing new molecules to store energy, as well as tools for understanding and predicting the behavior and characteristics of those molecules. "It's going to be very exciting to both develop molecules with huge storage capability, but also to be able to use them to balance various needs and parameters — high storage capacity with high solubility — so we can really understand how to modify structures to yield the best performance for an application," she said.
Zhang, Cui and Sanford harbor no delusions of ease when it comes to the dreams they've set forth. Rather, they greet the challenges ahead with equal measures of determination and hope. "We have an enormous amount of work to do in the coming decades," said Cui. "But everything we're working towards is so important for the sustainable growth of the world and for the health and future of our children. I'm confident we can do it."