Any list of the top achievements in science and energy is a list that glows with promise and hope. During the year 2008 we uncovered many stories, from the health-related, to transportation and energy-related, that struck us with awe and inspiration. Here are ten of the best:
1) CELLULAR REPROGRAMMING – In its annual list of the year’s top ten scientific breakthroughs, the journal Science has given top honors to research that produced “made-to-order” cell lines by reprogramming cells from ill patients. These cell lines, and the techniques for producing them, offer long-sought tools for understanding — and hopefully someday curing — difficult-to-study diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and type 1 diabetes.
Two years ago, in experiments with mice, researchers showed that they could wipe out a cell’s developmental “memory” by inserting just four genes. Once returned to its pristine, embryonic state, the cell could then be coaxed to become an altogether different type of cell.
This year, scientists built on this work with spectacular results. Two research teams took cells from patients suffering from a variety of diseases and reprogrammed them into stem cells. Many of these diseases are difficult or impossible to study with animal models, making the need for human cell lines to study even more acute.
The transformed cells grow and divide in the laboratory, unlike most adult cells, which don’t survive in culture conditions. The cells could then be induced to assume new identities, including those cell types most affected by the diseases afflicting the patients who had donated the initial cells.
A third research team skipped the embryonic state altogether and, working with mouse cells, turned one type of mature pancreas cells, called exocrine cells, directly into another type, called beta cells.
The new cell lines will be major tools for understanding how diseases arise and develop, and they may also prove useful in screens for potential drugs. Eventually, if scientists can master cellular reprogramming so that it’s more finely controlled, efficient and safe, patients may someday be treated with healthy versions of their own cells. (UCLA News)
2) SOLAR COATING FOR GLASS WINDOWS – MIT researchers have developed a new technique that involves coating glass with a specific mixture of transparent dyes which redirects sunlight to photovoltaic cells in the frame. The technology, outlined in the journal Science in July, could be used to convert glass buildings into vast energy plants. (BBC News reported on the discovery)
3) KITE-FUELED CARGO SHIP COMPLETES MAIDEN VOYAGE – The world’s first commerical ship partially powered by a giant kite successfully crossed the Atlantic producing energy savings of between 15 and 20 percent during the 14-day voyage from Germany to Venezuela, while cutting down on CO2 emissions. (Video on Good News Network)
4) PARALYZED MUSCLES REVIVED IN MONKEYS – “Monkeys were able to overcome wrist paralysis with an experimental device that might lead to new treatments for patients with stroke and spinal cord injury. Remarkably, the research at the University of Washington found the monkeys regained use of paralyzed muscles by learning to control the activity of just a single brain cell.” (Associated Press report via WTOP NEWS)
5) NEW DRUG MAY REVERSE MS – Doctors working in the Oregon Health and Science University and Portland V.A. Medical Center have developed an experimental vaccine for MS called Neurovax. Neurovax increased the number of disease-fighting white blood cells in the immune system for all 40 patients who received the treatment once per month in a clinical trial. Neurovax is an improvement over current MS drugs as it does not have flu-like side effects. Next steps are to execute a large enough trial through a minimum of two years so that researchers can see the immediate and longer term differences between the vaccinated patients and the placebo group. You can get more information on this MS drug by logging on to www.ohsu.edu/ms
6) NEW CHEAPER FUEL CELLS – A much cheaper fuel cell could be on its way thanks to a breakthrough cathode built by Australian researchers that uses Gortex, the same material in outdoor clothing. Up until now, fuel cells needed a cathode which contains expensive platinum particles, worth around $3,500 to $4,000. The new cost-effective solution, featured yesterday in the journal Science, uses a thin flexible polymer that conducts electricity at a cost of only several hundred dollars, while producing the same amount of current as the platinum cathode. The plastic also exhibits increased stability. (Story at Good News Network)
7) GENETIC PROFILING AND NEW CANCER DRUGS OFFER ‘EXTRAORDINARY HOPE’ – Doctors are investigating cancer cell mutations that can be targeted by new prescription medications. The drugs have offered real hope for patients with these mutations, quickly shrinking tumors responsible for their advanced cancers. This video explains new advances in cancer therapy. (Good News Network)
8) CAR THAT RUNS ON AIR FOR SALE IN U.S. BY 2010 – Zero Pollution Motors has obtained a license to become the first to produce cars in the U.S. that run on compressed air, pledging to deliver the first models in 2010 at a price tag of less than $18,000 for a 6-seater. The hybrids will use liquid fuel to operate at higher speeds and air stored in tanks beneath the car whenever travelling at speeds under 35 mph. (CNN.com has the story)
9) PATIENT’S STEM CELLS CREATE WINDPIPE FOR HEALTHIER TRANSPLANT – “Doctors have given a woman a new windpipe with tissue grown from her own stem cells, eliminating the need for anti-rejection drugs.” (Story and video at CBS)
10) FUEL FROM ALGAE – Backed by millions in venture capital, oil companies and scientists are successfully creating oil and bio-diesel from algae to make it a viable source of fuel for the green cars of the future. (Video and links at Good News Network)