2018 in Science: Important Breakthroughs in Medicine and Progress on Mars
One of the most striking aspects of scientific and technological developments of 2018 has been the emergence of China as an outright leader – in areas ranging from genetic engineering to space missions. More widely, science continued its internationalizing trend, with smaller players such as the UAE and KSA participating in major endeavors (satellites and space probes), alongside the US, Europe, Russia, India, Japan, and others. In space, Mars was the main area of progress, while in science, many of the most important advances were made in the field of medicine. But of course, there were a number of noteworthy and intriguing developments in other fields of science and technology.
In medicine, big breakthroughs were made in stem cells. First, two people received an experimental stem cell therapy for their near-blindness, which proved successful. The patients were not totally blind, but they had been gradually losing their sight, to the point of being unable to read. This kind of treatment is still very preliminary and requires further tests, but it could prove to be an important new procedure for ophthalmology, potentially becoming as common as cataract surgery.
Other successful applications of stem cell therapy were treatments for sickle-cell anemia and multiple sclerosis, two devastating diseases that affect the blood, the immune system, the spinal cord, and the brain. These treatments show the great promise that stem cells hold in various medical areas.
On another front, medical researchers succeeded in erasing damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease in patients’ brains. This was done by comparing neurons (brain cells) from healthy donors with neurons developed from stem cells collected from patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The comparison revealed that a specific gene was responsible for the development of the disease by producing a neuron-damaging protein. A method was then developed to change the structure of this protein, and that in turn prevented the development of the disease. This result is hugely encouraging, though still in its early stages, but at the very least it provides a window into the root cause, or at least one of the root causes, of Alzheimer’s disease.
The last important medical breakthrough I wish to highlight is the success of doctors at Harvard Medical School in reversing aging in mice. This was done by raising the levels of a molecule called NAD, which is both important for survival and related to aging. Once NAD levels were increased in the old mice (by means of dietary supplements), their cells regained strength, and the mice improved in overall health. This pathway may or may not apply to humans, but that is a promising route for medical research, particularly in relation to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
There was, however, one very disturbing development in medicine, which occurred toward the end of the year. A Chinese researcher carried out a decidedly imperfect gene editing procedure on embryonic human cells and implanted them in the mother’s uterus for full-term pregnancy and birth. A huge scandal ensued, understandably. Indeed, not only did the researcher not consult with the scientific community about his work, but he also ignored the imperfections and proceeded with the implantation and pregnancy without the full knowledge, understanding, and approval of the patient. He even ignored the warnings of several international scientific organizations against the editing of transmissible human genes, a procedure which is prohibited by more than countries around the world. Hopefully, this scandal will prevent such gung-ho experiments from being conducted in the future.
The other major field of science where important progress was made this year was space, most specifically Mars.
One of the most striking aspects of scientific and technological developments of 2018 has been the emergence of China as an outright leader – in areas ranging from genetic engineering to space missions.
First, mineable ice and liquid water were discovered on the red planet. Astronomers had known for some time that Mars has large quantities of ice, both on and under its surface, particularly in the polar regions. However, new regions were spotted by a camera on board the American Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Most importantly, the ice was found to be quite pure. In parallel to this, a radar-sounding instrument onboard another orbiter, the European Mars Express, discovered a big underground water lake, about 20 kilometers wide and 1 meter deep. These two discoveries are highly promising for any future plans for human colonies on Mars, as water will be essential for drinking and for growing crops.
These positive Martian developments were followed in late November by the successful landing of InSight, a NASA rover which will study the geological activity of the planet. In the next launch window for the red planet, in July 2020, the UAE will send its Amal/Hope probe, NASA its Mars 2020 spacecraft, and China its own 2020 Mars mission.
All this, while we await SpaceX’s human missions to Mars. Founded by Elon Musk, SpaceX continues to make spectacular progress. After its success in making one, then two rockets fly to space, come back and land upright, to be used again later, the company conducted the maiden flight of its most powerful rocket so far, and one of the biggest ever, the Falcon Heavy. Who could forget the red Tesla car that the big rocket carried and launched toward Mars?
In the meantime, analysis of the data collected from Scott Kelly’s one year in space (2015 to 2016) showed that zero-gravity can permanently alter gene expression, which could be both positive and negative for astronauts and life in space.
As always, space exploration offered its share of surprises and intrigues, ranging from the biggest pair of black holes merging and sending gravitational waves from billions of light years away, to that mysterious object called Oumuamua, which briefly visited our solar system and left us wondering what it was. Indeed, its trajectory quickly showed that it came from way beyond our solar system, but its size (about 200 meters) left its nature open to various possibilities. Could it be a comet, an asteroid or an alien spacecraft? However, while astronomers were performing observations and calculations to try to determine its nature, Oumuamua accelerated away out of the solar system. Was that due to some gas eruption at its back that propelled it forward, or was it a sign of artificial propulsion, thus indicating an alien nature? Opinions and articles abounded, with no conclusive answer.
Space enthusiasts have a feeling of anticipation, that something big is about to happen: a manned mission to Mars, or possibly even the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, whether primitive (bacteria or plants) or advanced (intelligent creatures). We’ll keep checking the news from astronomy and space.
In other domains of science and technology, artificial intelligence continues to make progress by leaps and bounds, conquering areas that, until recently, would have seemed exclusively human. Indeed, what should we make of AI programs that achieve better performance than human beings on a university reading and comprehension test?
Another important area of technology is renewable energy: researchers in China set a new record for photovoltaic (solar) cells, raising their efficiency (long known to be low and hindering the wide usage of solar energy) to 17.3 percent.
This leads me to end this review with the idea I started with: the extraordinary progress that China has made in science and technology in recent years. Last year China inaugurated the largest radio dish ever constructed by humans, with a diameter of about 500 meters (yes, half a kilometer); this year it sent a spacecraft to land on the far side of the Moon, another first. More generally, a report from the US National Science Foundation found that China is now publishing more scientific papers annually than any country, including the USA, although the latter still leads in research and development (R&D) and venture capital. And except for one laureate in medicine, Chinese scientists have yet to receive Nobel prizes.
This will surely change in the near future.
Science continues to amaze us with its discoveries and achievements, from genes to black holes. And with artificial intelligence invading every niche of technology and human activity, more as-yet unimagined advances will be made in the years to come. Let us prepare our children and students to be active members of this wonder-full world.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. He can be followed on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.