Immunotherapy against cancer, namely the recruitment of the immune system to eliminate the tumor, was considered by the «Science» magazine the main scientific breakthrough of 2013, which became a “key year” in the war against cancer.
The leading magazine presents a list of the major scientific breakthroughs of 2013, from understanding the function of sleep to the transparent brain.
1. The Main Breakthrough of the Year
“Immunotherapy against cancer won first place because it changes the mindset of researchers on how to treat 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. The clinical study started in 2006 has already shown that the PD-1 antibody shrinks tumors in various cancers.
The 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.
2. 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.
3. DNA scalpel
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.
4. Therapeutic cloning
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 pickier. For cloning humans, as shown, a dose of caffeine is required.
5. More power from the sunshine
A new class of materials, so-called perovskites, promises more efficient and cheaper solar panels. In just four years, efficiency reached 15%, which is less than in current technologies, but it can be increased. The days of silicon panels may be numbered.
6. New vaccines
This year, researchers developed a vaccine for the 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 the future be used against HIV.
7. Transparent brain
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”.
8. Lab-grown organs
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 human development and physiology.
9. 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 the answer to a 100-year-old question: the cosmic rays come from old stars that explode in a supernova.
10. 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 precious flora.
11. The hidden second code in DNA
U.S. scientific team led by Professor of Genetics School of Medicine University of Washington John Stamatoyannopoulos identified a second genetic code in the DNA.
In accordance with the research team, the genome uses the genetic code to “write” using two different “languages” of biological programming. In particular, the first encodes and directs the protein, and the second guides the cell on how genes are controlled.
According to professor Stamatoyannopoulos, the fact that the genetic code can write simultaneously two kinds of information means that many changes in DNA, which appear to alter the sequences of proteins, may actually disrupt the programs that control genes and thereby cause diseases.
12. Mutations that cause tumorigenesis
British researchers at the Sanger Centre of Cambridge University identified 21 major genetic mutations that cause 97% of oncogenesis in the 30 most common types of the disease.
“The deeper we understand the causes of the disease, the more we approach the methods of prevention and treatment of cancer,” the researchers explained.
13. 3D printers printing organs and skin
A team of U.S. scientists managed to print a skin cell sample. The printer uses cell cultures instead of ink and the human body instead of paper.
Also, scientists from St Vincent Hospital, Melbourne, went even further “printing” cartilage, muscle, and nerve cells on a 3D printer.
The main challenge to face is to keep the ‘printed’ tissues alive, though scientists believe that within the decade, the first fully functional organ transplants, designed specifically for the needs of each patient, will be possible.
2013 is a year that brought numerous medical and scientific achievements. Let’s hope that these impressive breakthroughs of 2013 will change our lives for the better in the near future.
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