As an aspiring scientist, nothing excites me more than a good step forward in a research field, and by those standards, 2013 was a great year. The following are the discoveries that we at MSURJ think should have made the top ten.
Coming in at number one, we have a topic perenially ripe for breakthroughs: cancer research. Even a couple of years ago, the field of field of cancer immunotherapy – the mobilizing of the body’s immune system against tumours – was unsupported by the scientific community. However, this past year, clinical trials have solidified its viability as a treatment, although researchers admit that there’s much uncertainty as to which types of cancers and patients will benefit.
The idea started in the late 1980s, when French researchers identified a protein receptor on T-cells (named CTLA-4) that prevented the immunity cells from releasing a full immune attack. Using this information, immunologist James Allison decided to block this protein blocker, thereby unleashing an immune assault on tumours in animal models. Initial results in mice showed that tumours shrunk, which gave the field momentum.
A couple of years later, a Japanese biologist found a molecule PD-1 expressed by dying T-cells which also appeared to block them from releasing their full immune attack. Anti-PD-1 strategies were soon tested and appeared to have even better results, with fewer side effects than the anti-CTLA-4 treatments.
The latest advancement came this year from Steven Rosenberg. His chimeric antigen receptor therapy, or CAR, aims to genetically modify a patient’s T-cells and use them to target cancerous cells in the body. This therapy was applied by Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania and has garnered impressive responses in some patients; 45 out of 75 adults and children with leukemia went into complete remission. CAR therapy is still relatively experimental, compared to the antibody strategies. However, all three methods have recently shown excellent trial results, leading the editor of Science to declare this concept “the birth of an important new paradigm shift for cancer treatment.”
The next advancement will inspire lovers of biology and small things alike – I’m talking about the engineering of tiny “organoids” using pluripotent stem cells. Mini-kidneys, tiny hearts, and liver buds have been created in lab settings by researchers intent on using them as models of human disease. Little brains have already been used to gain more information on microcephaly – a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs the growth of the brain.
The idea of being invisible is supremely alluring and appeals to anyone’s who’s ever indulged in their imagination – or was envious of Harry Potter as he unwrapped his Invisibility Cloak. However, Harry’s infamous Christmas present became something less of a fantasy this year as scientists at the University of Toronto announced the creation of a device that can “cloak” objects by enveloping them in “small antennas that collectively radiate an electromagnetic field.” This field would cancel out any waves scattering off the hidden object. As professor George Eleftheriades explained, this approach differs from the method of creating invisibility devices presented in 2006; here, the object does not have to be enveloped in “metamaterials,” which are impractical for real world use due to size considerations. Right now, the new approach is more suited to radio applications than light. However, since visual light is only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, we hope that the technology will rapidly improve to encompass the ability to scatter visual light.
When looking at the brain, nothing is clearer than CLARITY, the newest static brain imaging technique. CLARITY removes the fatty lipid molecules that form cell membranes and replaces them with molecules of a clear gel. The end result is transparent brain tissue, which can be processed with radioactive or fluorescent labels looking for specific proteins, cell types, or neurotransmitters. This technique could simplify basic molecular neurobiology tasks such as neuron counting, and allow scientists to see how different cell types are distributed throughout the brain – without having pesky lipid structures blocking the view.
News of the world’s first bionic eye rippled through the media in 2013, as it holds the promise to help 85% of the legally-blind population see the outlines of their surroundings. Created in Australia by a team of engineers and designers, the eye includes a small iPhone-like camera with a sensor to rotate it in conjunction with head movements. Much like an actual eye, this information goes through several levels of digital processing and is then sent wirelessly to a chip which is implanted into the occipital lobe. It codes and delivers its information as electric signals through microelectrodes, thereby stimulating the visual cortex, effectively allowing the brain to “see.”
An innovation made in 2013 might change the way we harvest solar energy. A new material composed of cheap manufactured Perovskite crystals is already beating other developing solar cell designs; it can convert more than 15% of the energy in sunlight to electricity. Although still not as efficient as commercially-available silicon solar cells, the technology shows promise – because it is more economical. Most importantly, integrating the Perovskite layers among the silicon layers of a solar cell could lead to a hybrid material that could reach up to 30% sunlight-to-electricity efficiency.
It is striking to think that there are up to one hundred trillion microbe cells living and working inside your body – and we learned more about some of them in 2013. The variation of bacteria population in humans can affect responses to illness and medical treatments, to the point where scientists looking to develop personalized medicine will need to take into account each patient’s microbial portfolio to achieve the most effective treatments. In a 2013 study of obese mice, a boost in the mucus-eating gut bacterium Akkemansia muciniphila leads to weight loss even on a high-fat diet, leading scientists to predict that people who are obese or have Type 2 diabetes might have lower levels of the bacterium.
Several breakthroughs this year came from the innovative technique of 3D printing – that is, piling layers of material (usually plastic) to create a complete miniature structure. Although a breakthrough all on its own, 3D printing has found its way into several independently-important research fields. One application came from Harvard, where scientists who used material composed of lithium metal oxide particles to make a pin-sized lithium ion battery which is able to store as much energy per gram as the larger versions of its kind, currently known for powering items as diverse as electric cars and laptops. One prospective use for these is in powering miniscule medical devices and tiny robots.
Just when you thought you couldn’t get more anonymous, researchers at California Institute of Technology have estimated that of the 8.8 billion stars in the Milky Way (which is our galaxy), one of every five could have Earth-sized planets orbiting in what is referred to as the “Goldilocks zone.” This zone is “just the right distance” from the star to allow oceans – and life – to potentially exist. These stars were discovered through the use of the Kepler telescope; the next step is to see whether these exoplanets have an atmosphere, which is another indicator that they could potentially support life.
In 1977, NASA sent out Voyager 1 on a mission to reach Jupiter and Saturn. 36 years later, the spacecraft has finally reached the edge of the heliosphere – a boundary of the solar system where the sun’s gravitational influence is no longer prominent. While the actual crossing happened in 2012, an aftershock of solar storms in September 2013 allowed scientists to confirm that the spacecraft was indeed 18.8 billion kilometres away from Earth. Pretty fast for something built in the 70s, huh?
In 2013, science took us one step closer to solving complex problems in healthcare and energy consumption; allowed us to see the far reaches of deep space and to zoom into the mysteries of the brain; to print tiny batteries and to construct invisibility fields. We hope that this year, researchers continue to build on these impressive achievements, making 2014 just as memorable for Science.