2014 Science Highlights: Part 1


Another year passes, so it’s time for another round up of the most interesting scientific events that have happened in the last 12 months. 2014 has been a year full of fascinating discoveries, both in this planet and outside of it, but with some disappointing realisations too.

 1. The Ebola Crisis Continues

ebola

The Ebola virus keeps taking lives and will continue to do so until we find a treatment

The Ebola virus gained a lot of attention this autumn when it grew to an unprecedented size: it became the larges Ebola outbreak in history. In fact, the WHO declared it a global public health emergency and many countries and organisations rushed to contribute some help. At first contained in West Africa, there were a couple of isolated cases in Europe and the USA which caused even more panic, but it has died down. As with many catastrophes, after the initial spotlight, the Ebola pandemic has lost a lot of attention from the public, even though it has not stopped growing. However, it is slightly more controlled, and due to all the press it received, plenty of research is going into treating it, which should hopefully yield some treatments or a vaccine.

2. Stem Cells Stump

Mouse embryo with beating heart

The original STAP cells, which held so much potential, but turned out to be too good to be true

There was a great flurry of excitement at the beginning of this year when researchers in Japan claimed to have created stem cells by simply dipping blood cells into acid. The STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells were great for medical research since they got rid of the ethical issues of using embryonic stem cells. The potential of this easy and cheap method were immense, so as soon as the results were published, many scientists from around the world tried to carry out the experiment themselves. But they couldn’t. The results couldn’t be replicated. A more in depth investigation showed that the results of the original experiment were not accurate, and now the theory has, unfortunately, been disproved.

3. Rosetta and Philae

rosetta philae

A representation showing Rosetta (left) and Philae (right) on the surface of 67P

You can’t summarise 2014 without mentioning either the Rosetta spacecraft or the Philae lander. They have both accomplished feats in science which could have only been dreamed of. Rosetta has been in space for 10 years in pursuit of the 67PN comet which is travelling through our Solar System. This year it finally reached it and is now moving relative to it, becoming the first object to rendezvous with a comet. But Rosetta is not the only one who’s kept busy. After rendezvousing with the comet, Rosetta released Philae, a small robot whose objective was to land on 67P. And so it did, although it was a bumpy ride. Unfortunately, it ran out of battery soon after the landing, making it impossible for it to analyse the comet and take samples; its original purpose. But 67P is supposed to pass close to the Sun at some point, which might reactivate Philae and help it complete its mission

4. Dusty Waves

primordial waves

The graph showing what scientists thought were primordial waves, the proof of inflation theory, but is actualy dust

There was another fascinating discovery this year, in which a special type of wave was detected coming from space, with massive implications. Called primordial waves, they are theorised to have been produced during the Big Bang, and if their existence was confirmed, the theory of inflation, which states that the universes started expanding just after it was created would be proved. What were supposed to be these waves were then detected, and scientists were ecstatic. The Big Bang is one of the most confusing aspects of science, and this discovery could help clarify it greatly. But again, after further investigation, the results did not look too good. The alleged ‘primordial waves’ were most likely just dust in the Universe, interfering with the results and creating false hopes.

5. Young Calls Young

blood

Blood could hold secrets for eternal youth

In a truly zombie-like procedure, scientists sewed young and old rats together so they created blood vessels between each other and shared blood. After some time, they investigated how tissues had grown and developed in the two rats and the results were utterly fascinating. The old rats had created more neural connections in their brains, their muscles had healed faster, and their heart muscles had been rejuvenated. However, the young mice suffered the opposite effects.

But scientists concentrated on the positive side, on what chemicals in the young rats caused these changes in the old ones and detected a specific protein, GDF11, which seemed to activate stem cells and cause all these beneficial effects. They also discovered chemicals in older mice which did the opposite: they made stem cells react slower, which in turn deteriorated the health of the younger rats. The next step is finding the equivalent proteins in humans, so that older people can be healed from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or arthritis.

 

Stay tuned for the more of the most interesting scientific events of 2014 in the epic conclusion: 2014 Science Highlights: Part 2.

The Miracle of Life


Cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and dementia are examples of illnesses that plague our society, and that have not yet been beaten. However, new incredible results may be bringing us a step closer to make those diseases history. And the only requirements are a normal cell and an acid bath.

This sounds strange, but scientists at Harvard Medical School have managed to convert a normal cell, a white blood cell, for example, into a pluripotent cell. That is, a cell that has the ability to form any type of cell. You can imagine what the consequences of such type of cell are: you can make any type of tissue out of these, so basically heal or reconstruct any part of your body. So if you have a cancer, you can just add these cells and they will grow into healthy ones.

Previously, this type of cells was only available through two ways: by extracting them from an embryo, which meant killing it (called Embryonic Stem Cells), or by changing the genes in a normal cell (called Induced Pluripotent Cells). But both have strong disadvantages. Killing a possible human being is not ethical, and Induced cells have a higher chance of causing cancer, since manipulating DNA is not safe and can be unpredictable.

These problems have caused many scientists to look for alternatives, and they may have found it. Charles Vacanti and his team at Harvard reproduced a group of mice, and extracted a white blood cell from them (although it works with any type of cell). It was modified so they reacted by fluorescence to the presence of Oct-4, a protein only found in pluripotent cells. Then, they were dipped in differ

ent solutions, and its effects were investigated. At first, the usual: some cells died, others remained unchanged. But in the second day, some cells that were introduced in an acidic solution of pH 5.7 for 30 minutes started glowing. After a few more days, more of them were glowing. Therefore, they had become pluripotent.

glowingmouse

The mouse carrying the pluripotent cells

The intriguing cells were thereby named “Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency” or STAP for short.

To test them even more, they were injected into a blastocyst (a group of cells formed by a fertilized egg cell reproducing, that contains pluripotent cells and that if left to grow and implanted onto a uterus can form a living being). The STAP cells integrated themselves perfectly, and ended up forming a new mice individual. This mouse also had children, who still had the STAP marked cells in them.

For further testing, specialized cells from an adult mouse were extracted, and incredibly, they behaved just like the younger ones did.

This method has called a lot of attention from the scientific community, since it’s the safest and fastest way to produce stem cells. It doesn’t murder any human being, only takes a few days (Induced Pluripotent cells take weeks) and chances of cancer are the same as a normal cell. Their most surprising feature, however, is the method of production. You only need to add any normal cell, no matter its age, to a slightly acidic solution, and you can reverse it into its primary state. The simplicity is outstanding, and is very cost-effective.

At the moment, its use in humans is being studied, so it will still be a few years until it can be used properly on the mainstream population. But hope remains that one day it will be able to solve the worst diseases we battle.

A Small Ethical Side Note

After the cells have been made pluripotent, they are manipulated, by adding them to a medium, so they specialize into any cell. But in some mediums, these STAP cells were also able to act as totipotent cells; cells that have the ability to become any cell and also divide into a human being. Of course, this is were science gets very ethical, because this potency gives them the ability to form perfect clones, something never seen before, since experiments such as Dolly the Sheep used other cloning methods which are not as exact. It is not legal to clone a human being, and cloning of other animals is regulated, so any tests on this area are very supervised.