At the start of the year, Epernicus members cast their ballot for the top scientific breakthroughs of 2008. Below are the three candidates which received the most votes.
#1. GROWING A NEW ORGAN FROM A PATIENT’S OWN STEM CELLS
Thanks to stem cell research, people with failing organs may not need to wait for a donor or take harsh medications that prevent their immune systems from rejecting transplanted tissue. One of the greatest examples of regenerative medicine — the science of building or fixing body parts — took place in 2008, when doctors removed some cells from a 30-year-old woman with tuberculosis and used them to grow a new trachea, replacing a segment that was destroyed by the bacterium. They took stem cells from her bone marrow, layered them onto a decellularized trachea from a deceased donor, and surgically implanted it in the woman. Four months later, Claudia Castillo could breathe well and showed no signs of the side-effects that patients have when they receive an organ from someone else. (Source: Wired Science)
# 2. REPROGRAMMING CELLS
This year, scientists achieved a long-sought feat of cellular alchemy. They took skin cells from patients suffering from a variety of diseases and reprogrammed them into stem cells. The feat rests on a genetic trick, first developed in mice and described 2 years ago, in which scientists wipe out a cell’s developmental “memory,” causing it to return to its pristine embryonic state and then regrow into something else. Researchers achieved another milestone this year when they prompted mouse cells to make the leap directly from one mature cell into another – flouting the usual rule that development of cells is a one-way street. These achievements could be an important step on a long path to treating diseases with a patient’s own cells. (Source: Science)
# 3. TURNING WATER INTO FUEL
Companies like Nanosolar and Solyndra slashed the cost of solar energy, but we still need a clean way to store all this power. Daniel Nocera of MIT has an elegant solution: Use electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen, store it in separate tanks, then recombine the gases in a fuel cell when you need power. While this process normally takes a lot of energy, Nocera and his team found a catalyst that makes the task of splitting H2O remarkably easy. It could prove to be an efficient storage mechanism for energy harvested by solar cells and wind farms. (Sources: Wired Science, Science)