Science Magazine Compiles Top Ten Breakthroughs Of 2013
April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
At the end of each year, Science combs through the scientific breakthroughs of the past year and compiles a top ten list. This year, the list includes major breakthroughs in solar cell technologies, genome-editing techniques and vaccine design strategies, to name a few. But the number one breakthrough came in the form of cancer immunotherapy.
2013 saw a striking change in the cancer research community in the form of a strategy that was decades in the making. Cancer immunotherapy, in which treatments target the body’s immune system rather than tumors directly, showed promising results by pushing T cells and other immune cells to combat cancer.
“This year there was no mistaking the immense promise of cancer immunotherapy,” said Tim Appenzeller, chief news editor of the journal Science. “So far, this strategy of harnessing the immune system to attack tumors works only for some cancers and a few patients, so it’s important not to overstate the immediate benefits. But many cancer specialists are convinced that they are seeing the birth of an important new paradigm for cancer treatment.”
The majority of current advances in cancer immunotherapy can be traced back to the late 1980s, when French researchers identified a receptor on T cells, called CTLA-4. Researcher James Allison discovered that this receptor prevented T cells from attacking invaders with their full force. Around the middle of the 1990s, Allison showed that blocking CTLA-4 in mice could unleash T cells against tumor cells in the animals, shrinking them dramatically.
Another “brake” on T-cells, PD-1, was identified by Japanese researchers. In 2006, clinical trials involving this receptor began and preliminary results appear to be promising.
Researchers are also investigating the possibility of genetically modifying T cells to make them target tumors. This strategy, known as chimeric antigen therapy, or CAR therapy, was used in 2011 to electrify the cancer research field, and it’s now the subject of numerous clinical trials, particularly in blood cancers.
Because of this, many pharmaceutical companies that wanted nothing to do with cancer immunotherapy many years ago are investing heavily now.
How many patients will benefit from these therapies is still uncertain, as many of the therapies remain experimental. It is unknown which forms of cancer will respond the best to each therapy, as well. Researchers are trying to identify biomarkers that might offer answers, and thinking of ways to make treatments more potent, however, a new chapter in cancer research and treatment has begun.
The other nine groundbreaking scientific advances of the past year are:
* CRISPR: This gene-editing technique was discovered in bacteria, but researchers now wield it as a scalpel for surgery on individual genes. More than a dozen teams of researchers used it to manipulate the genomes of various plant, animal and human cells.
* Perovskite Solar Cells: A new generation of solar-cell materials, which is cheaper and easier to produce than those in traditional silicon cells, has garnered a great deal of attention this past year. Perovskite cells are not as efficient as commercial solar cells yet, but they are improving very quickly.
* Structural Biology Guides Vaccine Design: In the first case of structural biology being used to fight diseases, researchers used the structure of an antibody to design an immunogen—the main ingredient of a vaccine—for a childhood virus that hospitalizes millions each year.
* CLARITY: This imaging technique renders brain tissue transparent and puts neurons (as well as other brain cells) on full display. The technique changed the way that researchers look at this intricate organ.
* Mini-Organs: Researchers made remarkable progress growing mini human-like “organoids” in vitro this year. These included liver buds, mini-kidneys and tiny brains. Such miniaturized human organs may prove to be much better models of human disease than animals.
* Cosmic Rays Traced to Supernova Remnants: Although originally detected 100 years ago, scientists haven’t been sure where the high-energy particles from outer space known as cosmic rays come from. These mysterious rays were finally tied to debris clouds left by supernovae, or exploding stars.
* Human Cloned Embryos: Researchers were able to derive stem cells from cloned human embryos after discovering that caffeine plays an important role in the process by stabilizing key molecules in delicate human egg cells.
* Why We Sleep: Studies with mice showed that the brain cleans itself—by expanding channels between neurons and allowing more cerebrospinal fluid to flow through—much more efficiently during sleep. The finding suggests that the primary purposes of rest are not restoration and repair.
* Our Microbes, Our Health: Research on the trillions of bacterial cells that call the human body home made it clear how much these microbes do for us. “Personalized” medicine will be developed by taking these microbial tenants into account in order to be effective.