Immunotherapy against cancer, namely the recruitment of the immune system to eliminate tumor, was considered by the «Science» magazine the main achievement of 2013, which became a “key year” in the war against cancer. The leading magazine presents a list of nine other major developments, from understanding the function of sleep to the transparent brain.
Breakthrough of the Year
“Immunotherapy against cancer won first place because it changes the mindset of researchers on how to treat the cancer,” writes the magazine.
This year, three approaches against cancer, which were based on discoveries in the 1980s and 1990s, proved effective in a significant proportion of patients tested.
The first relates to the CTLA-4, a protein found on the surface of T-cells of the immune system that substantially decelerates their action. In 1996, scientists discovered that an antibody that blocks CTLA-4 enables T-cells to attack tumors. In 2012, the company Bristol-Myers Squibb, which gained the rights for the discovery, said that treatment is the first to offer even a short extension of life in patients with metastatic melanoma.
The second immunotherapy refers to the PD-1, another molecule believed to break the action of T-cells. Clinical study started in 2006 has already shown that a PD-1 antibody shrinks tumors in various cancers.
A third immunotherapy, slightly different from the previous two, concerns the isolation of T-cells from the patient’s body, adding in these cells additional genes and transferring them back to the patient. Preliminary results from clinical trials suggest that the approach eliminates leukemia in a substantial proportion of patients.
The tests are now ongoing, and in the coming years scientists will try to understand why immunotherapies show to be effective in only a proportion of patients. This could eventually help others.
Sleep “cleans” the brain
This year we had the first indications of how sleep helps in cleansing the brain. When the brain falls asleep, small channels that exist between the cells begin to widen. Cerebrospinal fluid can thus penetrate deeply into the tissue and remove toxins that accumulate during the day. Perhaps toxins are what are responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
The geneticists who work with DNA have at their disposal a new precise scalpel. It is the CRISP, a complex protein that helps some bacteria to cut the DNA of viruses into pieces. Dozens of research groups used the CRISP this year to perform microsurgical interventions in genes and understand their function.
In 2013, scientists succeeded for the first time to isolate valuable stem cells in order to create human embryos through cloning. This was already done in many animal species, but humans are a little more picky. For cloning humans, as shown, a dose of caffeine is required.
More power from the sunshine
A new class of materials, so-called perovskites, promises more efficient and cheaper solar panels. In just four years, the efficiency reached 15%, which is less than in current technologies, but it can be increased. The days of silicon panels may be numbered.
This year researchers developed a vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which often affects children, using structural biology techniques. The vaccine contains mutant forms of a viral protein, designed to increase the likelihood of producing antibodies by the immune system. Such designed antigens could in future be used against HIV.
A new technique of chemical treatment of tissue with the matching name «Clarity» replaces the brain lipids with the molecules of transparent gel. The new method leaves intact both the microscopic and the macroscopic structure, thus allowing researchers to see “both the tree and the forest”.
The technology of tissue cultivation in recent years is one of the hottest research fields. Stem cells grown on three-dimensional scaffolds were used this year for growing mini kidney or even mini human brain. For now, these “organoids” lack nerves and blood vessels, but are useful in understanding the human development and physiology.
The origin of cosmic rays
The Earth is constantly bombarded by high-energy particles that penetrate the Solar System. But their paths are affected by magnetic fields they meet in their way, so it is difficult to determine their origin. This year, astronomers gave answer to a 100 years old question: the cosmic rays come from old stars that explode in a supernova.
The germs inside us
A new study on the trillion microbes harboring the human intestine appeared almost every week throughout 2013. These microbes found to be associated with obesity, cancer, and even human behavior. To combat a variety of diseases, we will now have to learn how to manipulate the precious flora.