Many life-changing things took place in 2016 which resulted in a bleak outlook for 2017. However, there’s actually a tonne of amazing things that has happened in science during last year itself. While this list will not cover all of them, it will change your perspective for science in 2018.
1.The discovery of a vitamin that could reduce the incidence of birth defects and miscarriages worldwide
This has probably got to be the most important discovery for pregnant women since folate. This 12-year study has showed that women could avoid miscarriages and birth defects by simply taking vitamin B3 during pregnancy.
These injuries are not simple in correcting, but new research has found out how the body can actually repair itself with a little prompting from surgeons. After finally understanding how these injuries can heal, researchers can now develop even more effective treatments that could potentially reverse paralysis and other nervous system damage.
Many scientists predict that antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually by 2050, and the United Nations has declared this a fundamental threat to global health. But lucky for us, at the start of 2017, scientists announced the development of a molecule that reverses antibiotic resistance in multiple strains of bacteria at once, making it one of the most promising advances we’ve had to date. In fact, an Australian PhD student, Shu Lam, had developed a star-shaped polymer that can kill 6 different superbug strains without antibiotic, simply by ripping apart their cell walls.
For the past 3 decades, this therapy has been on the most promising areas of medicine. It involves modifying a person’s DNA to treat or prevent disease; instead of having to take a drug daily for an illness for the rest of your life, you could have your genes altered to fix the problem for good. And these therapies have already hit the US market. I can’t wait till they hit the Malaysian one.
The FDA has already approved several gene treatments; for adults and children with inherited form of vision loss (that can result in blindness), for adults with certain types of large B-cell lymphoma, and children and young adults with a form of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
There are also many other promising gene therapies such as a therapy for those with haemophilia, where 11 out of 13 patients had successfully reversed their disease in a Bristish trial.
CRISPR/Cas9 is a tool made of protein and RNA that can be customized to efficiently edit DNA. For years, there was a large hype surrounding this tool to permanently cure genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and help the body fight infections, as well as create better biofuels and more resilient crops. It works by borrowing a system bacteria use to fight viruses and programming it to snip targeted sections of the genome and swap in a replacement.
The massive hurdle was the concern that if you get an edit wrong, you could create a problem that doesn’t just harm an individual organism but also have it ripple through generations of progenies. But Harvard University and MIT researchers presented 2 ways to fix this. One being to engineer a version of CRISPR that targets RNA, a sister molecule to DNA, and the other to modify a single base pair out of the 3 billion base pairs from that form the human genome. In August 2017, scientist also reported that they have used the tool to fix a mutation that causes a heart disorder in human embryos, and though the conclusion has been called into question, the research has nudged the field forward. Recently, scientists were also able to reduce the severity of genetic deafness in mice and a private company has already announced that it will begin clinical trials on a CRISPR-based therapy for the blood disorders beta thalassemia and sickle cell anaemia.
Starting last summer, a plague infected over 2,300 people in Madagascar and other cities, killing 207. The type of bacteria was also a highly contagious pneumonic plague, rare and more dangerous that it attacks the lungs and passes from person to person through droplets from coughing with patients typically dying within 24 hours – unless they’re lucky enough to get antibiotics. But by the end of November, the situation had improved greatly thanks to the health officials who responded quickly, acting on the mistakes made during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
WHO delivered 1.2 million doses of free antibiotics to treat and also prevent the disease in people who might have been exposed. The UN also supported the Ministry of Public Health of Madagascar with strategies like training 4,400 ‘contact tracers’ who followed up with people who might have been exposed to someone infected and boosting the epidemiological surveillance in all affected areas, so they could identify cases quickly and stop it from spreading.
Weight loss surgery (gastric sleeve and bypass operations) is still the best treatment for sever obesity. But it’s far from a cultural norm as only 1% of Americans are eligible to get surgery, whilst survey shows a third still think it’s dangerous and ineffective. But after a number of long-tem studies, bariatric surgery seems like its finally getting its due.
One of the best study showed that their bypass patients had lost 28% of their original bodyweight and kept it off. A 2017 study also showed that teens lost an average of 30% of their bodyweight. A study from Sweden also tracked 81 teens with obesity for 5 years and found that they lost 28% of their original bodyweight, far better than the 5% of trimmings that people achieve with 8 years of intensive diet and exercise programs.
The research also shows that the surgery can help reverse or prevent obesity-related health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, hence why doctors are increasingly recommending this avenue.
Way back in February 2017, NASA and the European Southern Observatory announced that they’ve found 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting a small star about 40 light-years away, and 3 of these planets are in the star’s habitable zone! Though it is uncertain whether they are capable of forming an atmosphere, the discovery was another success in the world of science.
Scientists have also overseen an increase in the number of exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) and they’re probably going to be finding more with the help of AI. In November, astronomers found that they’ve discovered Ross 128 b, a planet just 11 light years away (somewhere in our ‘neighbourhood) that may even be a better candidate for finding life.
The James Webb Space Telescope is also set to launch in 2019 and will be able to measure the chemical composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. And with the increasing number of exoplanets out there found, the more likely we’ll find life on at last one of them.
Header image source here.