11 Great Things That Happened in This Spectacularly Shitty Year
Some stuff actually went right in 2016.
John Moore/Getty Images
In a year when the CEO of a major oil company was tapped to be Secretary of State, a creationist was nearly put in charge of our public schools, and America elected a man who once said things like "This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop," one might wonder if scientific advancement has come to a screeching halt. But thankfully, the world does not bend to the will of Donald Trump's tweets—yet. In some ways, in fact, science is flourishing: Researchers are quietly marching diseases to their death, a manned mission to Mars could happen within a decade, and a new generation of students will now get to nerd out to Bill Nye the Science Guy. Plus, this year the future of rational thinking showed itself to be brighter than the Trump cabinet-in-the-making can ever hope to be. Here are some of 2016's breakthrough moments.
Scientists dealt Ebola a serious blow
A new vaccine announced last week offers 100 percent protection against the deadly Ebola virus, which killed 11,000 people in Africa during the 2014 outbreak, according to The New York Times. Many, many agencies—including the World Health Organization, the Guinean Health Ministry, Norway's Institute of Public Health, and more—coordinated in the push for a vaccine, which also piggybacked on previous research done by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the US Army. In a study published in The Lancet, 5,837 people got the vaccine and none of them came down with the virus ten days later. To help prevent a future outbreak, the Times reports that an emergency stockpile of 300,000 doses has already been created.
A teenager invented a tool to clean the ocean
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, if you haven't heard of it, is the stuff of nightmares—a Texas-sized trap floating between Hawaii and California where small bits of plastic swirl around in perpetuity, poisoning the millions of fish who mistake the scraps for food. That's why 17-year-old Boyan Slat—yeah, he's a teen, sorry to make you feel lazy and unaccomplished—developed a system that uses a series of floating barriers along with the ocean's natural currents to automatically trap all that trash, making it simple to remove. He's calling it, simply, The Ocean Cleanup. The first prototype was deployed earlier this year, and the program is currently on pace to begin a full-scale cleanup by 2020. (Breaking news: President Trump has just named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as head of the EPA.)
A doctor shut down a deadly genetic disorder using the so-called "three-parent" technique
Earlier this year, a married couple from Jordan met with John Zhang, a fertility specialist based in New York City, in the wake of the most terrible tragedy a parent can imagine: A rare neurological disease known as Leigh syndrome, which is genetically inherited and linked to faulty mutations in the mitochondria of cells, killed both their children. Zhang knew of a controversial technique called spindle nuclear transfer that, if successful, could create a healthy embryo by combining the couple's nuclear DNA with a donor's mitochondrial DNA—eliminating the risk of passing along the disease. The procedure is banned in the US, so Zhang and the couple traveled to a clinic in Mexico to skirt the legal restrictions. In April, the couple gave birth to a healthy boy with no trace of the disease. Zhang's success, meanwhile, has renewed calls for the FDA to lift the ban on the procedure—which some have nicknamed the "three-parent technique"—that could give hope to couples facing similar challenges.
A physicist put cancer in her crosshairs
Spectra, the comic superhero with the powers of a laser, has some non-fictional competition in Hadiyah-Nicole Green, an assistant professor at Tuskegee University. Her technique involves injecting patients with a drug that makes cancerous cells glow. Then she points a nanoparticle laser at whatever lights up and fires at will. (Okay, it's slightly more complicated, but that's the general gist.) Green, one of fewer than 100 black female physicists in the US, received a $1.1 million grant earlier this year to further develop the tech. "I'm really hoping this can change the way we treat cancer in America," she told AL.com. "There are so many people who only get a three-month or six-month survival benefit from the drugs they take. Then three or six months later, they're sent home with no hope, nothing else we can do. Those are the patients I want to try to save."
New drugs are showing promise against old diseases
A research team at Merck, one of big pharma's leviathans, developed a drug, verubecestat, that shows promise fighting one of our most crippling and cruel diseases. Results of early human and animal Alzheimer's trials show that verubecestat significantly reduces the levels of amyloid beta plaques that cause damage by inhibiting a protein necessary for the plaques to form. Unlike similar previous drugs, verubecestat shows no signs of toxicity, making it the first of its kind to reach phase III trials. In another development at Merck, 40 percent of patients with advanced melanoma who were treated with the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab were still going strong after three years. That may not sound like much, but it's actually a big step forward: "Before 2011, advanced melanoma had a median overall survival of less than one year," the study's author, Caroline Robert, said while presenting the research in Paris.
The promise of gene editing ballooned
Until recently, trying to edit genes was kind of like trying to perform surgery before the invention of the scalpel—we lacked the tools to do it with precision. Then a few scientists—Feng Zhang, and separately, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier—led a series of experiments that resulted in a revolutionary tool, known as CRISPR, that "cuts" individual genes like a pair of scissors, using a protein found in the streptococcus bacteria to do it. The applications are endless: Researchers have used the technology to deactivate the HIV virus in a patient's bloodstream and created a new strain of mosquitos that were incapable of spreading malaria. Researchers are, well, understandably stoked. "It's like a dream come true for me as a biologist," Craig Mello, a researcher and former Nobel Prize winner told Berkeley's alumni magazine. "This overcomes a serious bottleneck. It allows us to alter genes effortlessly, almost at will." While CRISPR isn't new, and the researchers are now involved in a patent dispute, the technology took a huge step forward this year with the announcement of the first-ever human trial at China's Sichuan University, in which researchers injected a patient with modified cells to explore its effect on fighting an aggressive case of lung cancer. And in June, the National Institute of Health approved the first trial in the US to use CRISPR technology to help augment cancer-fighting therapies.
Hey, remember when the guy who wanted to kill the Department of Energy—despite forgetting its name—was appointed to manage it? (Thanks, President Trump!) Here's yet another reason former Governor Rick Perry might want to grant some of America's top scientists a stay of execution: At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a team led by chemist and senior staff scientist Adam Rondinone figured out a way to zap carbon dioxide into ethanol. Rondinone was testing a chemical reaction involving nanotechnology and electricity when he discovered that nature's combustion process can be reversed. "By using common materials, but arranging them with nanotechnology, we figured out how to limit the side reactions and end up with the one thing that we want," Rondinone said in a press release. If scaled to an industrial level, it could translate to a serious reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. No one ever imagined this possibility before, and the implications are titillating. The process uses low-cost materials (a catalyst made of carbon, copper, and nitrogen and a bit of voltage) and operates at room temperature in water. This means it can (probably) be scaled up for all manner of energy applications. And as for all that extra ethanol? As Rondinone told Popular Mechanics, "You could use this as an opportunity to essentially suck up extra electricity and put it somewhere in the form of ethanol, which can be distributed and used as fuel."
There was movement in the effort to reverse paralysis
Several new studies show that we're inching closer to a more effective way of restoring at least partial mobility in people with severe spinal injuries. Last month Tonic reported on the neuro-spinal scaffold, a device that "acts like a trellis where new cells hang and multiply." Researchers at Rush Medical Center in Chicago and the University of Southern California recently injected 10 million human embryonic stem cells into the spinal cords of paralyzed individuals and saw improvements like increased sensation and movement in their arms and hands. And in a recent animal trial, an international team of neuroscientists proved that it's possible to produce an electrical signal that bypasses a severed area of a monkey's spine, reconnecting brain signals to leg muscles. The key is a wireless device that mimics the natural communication of the brain and muscles and that requires only two small implants—one each on the brain and an undamaged area of the spine. Currently, the device only works one way, so sensations are not reported back to the brain. It's also unclear how much weight the legs can bear, but the team hopes to work those kinks out and have it available for humans within a decade.
A young scientist stood up to superbugs
The rise of so-called 'superbugs'—newly incurable STDs like gonorrhea, for instance—is one of those horror-show problems of the modern world that most people, frankly, would rather not think about. Unless you're Shu Lam, a 25-year-old polymer chemist and PhD student in microbiology at Melbourne University, who decided to fight back against our bacterial overlords by developing a star-shaped polymer that goes all Jason Vorhees on the unwanted cells. "We've discovered [the polymers] actually target the bacteria and kill it in multiple ways," Lam told The Telegraph. "One method is by physically disrupting or breaking apart the cell wall of the bacteria. This creates a lot of stress on the bacteria and causes it to start killing itself." While the technique is promising, it's only been tested on mice, and human trials could still be a long way out.
Blind animals regained their sight
In another study out of Melbourne, a different team made headway toward a cure for blindness. The current treatment for loss of vision often involves a cornea transplant, which can pose several hurdles due to the surgery's difficulty, as well as the dearth of available donors. The surgery isn't always successful, either. That's one reason why scientists—led by Berkay Ozcelik, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University—are trying to bypass the donor requirement altogether by growing cornea cells on a layer of film akin to plastic wrap. When they transplanted the cells into the eyes of blind animals, their vision was fully restored. Human trials are set to begin soon, and may involve using patients' own cells—theoretically eliminating the chance of rejection.
A drug extended the life of some poor old dogs
A drug meant for humans with cancer is currently responsible for a canine version of the movie "Cocoon." At the University of Washington, professor of geriatric medicine Arlan Richardson gave old dogs rapamycin for ten weeks and watched as they performed new tricks such as running around with dogs a third their age. The drug has already been proven to stretch mouse life up to 60 percent. If you're waiting for a catch, here it is: Virtually identical drugs (Rapamune by Pfizer and Afinitor by Novartis) are already being given to human cancer patients and organ transplant recipients and produce horrific side effects including cancer, diabetes and infection. However, more optimistic scientists believe those side effects are not due to the rapamycin itself but to how it interacts with other drugs and how sick the human patients are to begin with. Human studies of the drug's anti-aging effects are extremely limited, but so far, show promise. Just nobody tell Peter Thiel, okay?