Three thrilling science discoveries of 2017
Breakthrough scientific research currently abounds, much of which will have an impact on our lives. In this blog, we highlight three potentially life-changing discoveries of 2017. These include exciting advances in regenerative medicine, new technologies to detect disease biomarkers, and progress towards replacing fossil fuels with clean energy resources. These discoveries promise to transform our healthcare and save many lives, as well as ensure a greener and more sustainable future for our planet.
Remarkable progress in regenerative medicine is enabling the production of functional cells, tissues, and organs to help treat patients with life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge have recently discovered a better way of producing human cells from pluripotent stem cells, which could help to generate cells that have never been produced in the laboratory before.
The team’s new platform technology, named Optimized inducible Overexpression (OPTi-OX), improves the way pluripotent stem cells are used to produce human brain and muscle cells. Current methods are complex, lack specificity, and are time-consuming, usually taking 3-20 weeks to generate a mixed population of cells.
Described in Stem Cell Reports, the team showed that OPTi-OX solves these issues by ‘switching on’ carefully selected genes in stem cells to produce defined, large populations of nearly pure identical cells in just a matter of days.
This innovative technology also has the potential to produce new cell types that might be uncovered by large-scale projects like the Human Cell Atlas, and so help to drive research forward in the quest to better understand and treat disease.
Uncovering biomarkers of disease
An explosion of new advances in biotechnology is helping us to diagnose early-stage disease and to develop new treatments to improve patient survival.
One recent advance is a new computer program developed by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, which can noninvasively detect cancer in patients’ blood samples. Described in Genome Biology, the ‘CancerLocator’ tool identifies specific molecular patterns in cancer DNA and matches these to a database of tumor epigenetics from different cancer types. This not only detects the type of cancer but also identifies where in the body it is located.
Another new technology called Exodisc can analyze urine to isolate extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are becoming important biomarkers in cancer diagnostics. The new method, published in ACS Nano, uses an integrated centrifugal microfluidic platform for rapid, size-selective and efficient isolation, and analysis of EVs, which improves on complex current methods.
A last example, a nanoscale artificial nose called Na-Nose that can sniff out disease by analyzing the chemical composition of our breath, is currently being miniaturized to fit into smartphones as a portable, disease-detecting breathalyzer. Developed and tested by Prof. Hossam Haick at Technion, Israel's Institute of Technology, Na-Nose has been found to detect gastric cancer with an astounding 92-94% accuracy as well as distinguish between 17 different diseases.
Solar fuels get a boost
As climate change continues to threaten our planet and fossil fuel reserves decline, there is a growing urgency to develop clean and renewable energy resources. One promising solution is the use of solar fuels. These are synthetic chemical fuels, such as hydrogen and liquid hydrocarbons, which are generated through reactions between sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide.
Given that creating any solar fuel involves splitting water, scientists have been looking for a commercially viable way of splitting water using low-cost and efficient materials, called photoanodes. These are catalysts that absorb energy from the sun, which can then be used to split water into its constituent parts: oxygen and hydrogen. The extracted hydrogen atoms can then be used to create hydrogen gas or mixed with carbon dioxide to create hydrocarbon fuel.
The trick is to find special metal oxides that absorb visible light, which are few and far between. Only 16 photoanodes have been discovered in the past four decades, mainly because candidates had to be painstakingly assessed on an individual basis. Yet, a new technique recently developed by research teams at Caltech and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has enabled the discovery of 12 new photoanodes in quick succession, with the promise of more in the pipeline.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the new method involves mining a materials database to identify suitable compounds, which are screened based on the materials’ light-absorbing properties. Only then are the most promising candidates assessed in high-throughput experiments.
The new technology therefore improves on the efficiency, selectivity, and ease in finding photoanodes to facilitate the production of commercially-viable, clean energy solar fuels.
We hope these scientific discoveries of 2017 have thrilled you as much as they did us. Such ground-breaking technological and research advances will undoubtedly continue to help change lives and protect our planet throughout the rest of 2017 and beyond.