2020: Year in review

A look back at science highlights from a year like no other, from the Allen Institute’s research in the immune system, brain, cell biology and the frontiers of science

December 14, 2020

NoneA masked researcher inside the Allen Institute headquarters.

2020 may well go down in the books as one of the weirdest, hardest years in recent memory. 

Like every other organization in the world, the Allen Institute was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In early March, as it became obvious that the novel coronavirus was quickly spreading in the Seattle-area community, the Institute shifted most of its scientists and staff to remote work. Lab researchers quickly pivoted to data analysis or other remote-work-friendly tasks. 

But as 2020 laid new problems in our laps and shed new light on old challenges, one thing was clear: Scientific progress can’t wait. The pandemic gives new urgency to biomedical research, both that directed at treating or preventing the novel virus itself and basic scientific research that lays the groundwork for other advances in human health. Allen Institute scientists needed to keep experiments running. 

How do you practice team science when everyone needs to stay at least six feet apart? The answer is: with great caution and some ingenuity. By early summer, just a few months after the shift to remote work, many of the Institute’s lab experiments were up and running again, with slimmed-down on-site personnel and beefed-up safety protocols to keep staff safe and healthy in the building as they carry out important research.

As we look back on a year like no other, we want to first recognize the hard work and dedication of the scientists and staff who are coming into the labs every day, and the teams who worked to put new safety measures in place to protect them. 

In 2020, Allen Institute researchers and staff…

… launched new efforts to tackle tough problems in human health

NonePalak Genge, a research associate at the Allen Institute for Immunology, works with COVID-19 patient blood samples in the lab.

This summer, a new study launched in Seattle to address a complicated question about COVID-19: Why do some people infected with the novel coronavirus die, while others recover with few symptoms — or even no symptoms at all? Researchers at the Allen Institute for Immunology, a division of the Allen Institute, joined a collaborative effort with scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to track the details of individuals’ immune responses as they are infected with, and recover from, SARS-CoV-2. Unlike many other research studies into the novel coronavirus, this study specifically focuses on people with mild or moderate cases of COVID-19, to better understand a “successful” immune response to the virus. 

Earlier this year, researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science were awarded $40.5 million from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health for a new research center aiming to pinpoint cells at the root of Alzheimer’s disease and home in on new therapeutic targets. The Allen Institute team will work with collaborators at UW Medicine and Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute to delve into more detail about how and where in the brain the progressive disorder starts, and, ultimately, how to better treat it. 

… found new ways to keep science moving

NoneAllen Institute for Cell Science research associates Sara Carlson and John Paul Thottam wear masks and work distantly in the lab.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many hands-on scientists suddenly found themselves working remotely. While there’s always plenty of data analysis and other computational work to keep researchers busy, several neuroscientists with the Allen Institute for Brain Science took a creative approach to remote work: a video game competition designed to spur progress in capturing neurons’ 3D shapes. 

And as researchers started coming back to the building in the early summer, we asked on-site and remote scientists to share how they were managing the new normal of team science in the era of remote work and social distancing. In place of in-person conferences and other scientific events, Allen Institute researchers and collaborators convened virtually to share their progress and ideas in neuroscience, cell biology, immunology, brain health, development, and more. 

As capturing videos became more challenging, we also launched the Allen Institute podcast Lab Notes to share audio stories about our science. The podcast’s first three episodes focus on Frontiers Group-supported researchers who started new projects to study, detect or treat COVID-19. 

… made new discoveries and shared new resources and data

NoneA technique that captures information about a neuron's 3D shape, electrical properties, and its genes is giving scientists a new way to look at cell types in the mouse brain and the relationship between them — described in this illustration as a 'family tree' of neurons. Illustration by Benedicte Rossi.

Researchers from the Allen Institute for Brain Science shared several discoveries and resources about the mouse and human brains: New insights into a huge, rare human brain cell known as the von Economo neuron; a high-resolution, 3D map of the whole mouse brain, years in the making; and a holistic way to view mouse brain cell types using a technique that captures three features from each individual neuron. 

Teams from the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Allen Institute for Cell Science continued to release data, tools and other resources for the scientific community, including a new cell line, made in collaboration with scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, that lets researchers use CRISPR to reversibly switch off genes

… welcomed new faces (virtually) and celebrated new roles

NoneThe Allen Institute headquarters, located in Seattle, Washington.

Allen Institute teams were excited to welcome new staff, Frontiers-supported researchers and advisors: the Allen Institute for Cell Science launched a Junior Fellows Program with an inaugural group of three early-career scientists to form a special advisory group; the Frontiers Group announced eight new Allen Distinguished Investigators who will lead five projects in neurodegenerative disease, nucleus biology, and protein turnover; and the Allen Institute for Brain Science welcomed its seventh group of Next Generation Leaders, members of a unique neuroscience advisory panel made up of early-career researchers.

Also this year, the Allen Institute announced new phases for its neuroscience research groups, including a new leader for the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Institute’s oldest division, and a new neuroscience division to be launched in 2022. 

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