News ArchivesRead News

Leading journal names the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of 2008

Thursday December 25, 2008

guardian.co.uk - A feat of biological alchemy that offers scientists the hope of growing replacement organs from patients' own skin cells has been named the scientific breakthrough of the year.

Cellular reprogramming allows scientists to rewind the developmental clock of adult cells to produce stem cells, which can then be grown into completely different tissues, such as neurons and beating heart cells.

The technique is already being used to gain unprecedented insights into debilitating and incurable diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, but ultimately scientists hope they will be able to treat patients by reprogramming their cells to make healthy replacement tissues and organs.

The discovery leads a top ten of major advances announced by the prestigious US journal Science. It was chosen because it "opened a new field of biology almost overnight and holds out hope of life-saving medical advances," said Robert Coontz, an editor on the publication.

Scientists first showed they could transform adult cells into stem cells in experiments on mice two years ago. This year, they built on the work and made spectacular progress in humans.

In July, researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston plucked skin cells from an 82-year-old woman with motor neurone disease and reprogrammed them into stem cells, before turning these into spinal cord nerves. By watching the nerves grow in the lab, the scientists can see how the disease takes hold and progresses, which is impossible to observe in a living patient.

Only a week later, another team created stem cells from patients with 10 other medical conditions, including muscular dystrophy, type 1 diabetes and Down's syndrome. Researchers are now focusing on boosting the safety and efficiency of the technique.

Second place on the list of breakthroughs was awarded for the first direct observation of a planet beyond our own solar system. Scientists first confirmed that there were worlds orbiting other stars in the 1980s, though they did so indirectly. The majority of the more than 300 "extrasolar planets" now known were spotted by watching the tiny wobble in stars' position as enormous, Jupiter-sized planets swung around them.

This year, scientists announced that they had seen shimmers of light from the planets themselves. They are just faint pinpricks of light in space, but they will give astronomers clues to what those distant planets are made of and how they formed.

The remaining eight breakthroughs are not ranked in any particular order but cover the breadth of science from the genetics of cancer and renewable sources of energy, to an unprecedented understanding of "good fat", and a way of calculating the mass of the universe.

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, made the top 10 list for developing a laser microscope to capture the dance of cells inside a fertilised egg as it grows into an embryo. By rewinding the video of a zebrafish embryo, the researchers were able to trace the origin of cells that formed specific tissues, such as the retina at the back of the eye.

The year saw a flurry of genomes published, from that of the woolly mammoth to individual cancer patients, a feat aided by a surge in new genetic sequencing techniques, which also made the top ten. Joining them was research on two of the deadliest cancers, pancreatic and brain tumours, which revealed dozens of mutations that had made the cells go awry.

Another notable breakthrough involved research into brown fat tissue, which burns "bad" white fat to generate heat for the body. Scientists found that brown fat is remarkably similar to muscle, a discovery that could lead to new treatments for obesity.

The remaining top 10 scientific discoveries included a new family of superconductors that can carry electricity without resistance; a way to watch proteins at work; a catalyst that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and so provide renewable energy; and a calculation that predicts the mass of two of the building blocks of matter, the proton and neutron.

Recent News

Nov 17 - 'Moving Day' participant is not letting young-onset Parkinson's disease stop him
Nov 17 - Focused ultrasound shows promise for treating Parkinson's tremor
Nov 17 - New research to target air pollution as a potential trigger for Parkinson’s
Nov 17 - This device will let you feel what it's like to suffer from Parkinson's
Nov 10 - How does Parkinson's disease influence depression?
Nov 10 - House votes to repeal ObamaCare's Medicare cost-cutting board
Nov 10 - Microsoft shows off watch that quiets Parkinson's tremors
Nov 3 - Utah group battling Parkinson's disease with boxing
Oct 27 - Herbicide's link to Parkinson's disease
Oct 27 - NTU Singapore, KAIST scientists discover new mechanism that causes Parkinsonian symptoms
Oct 27 - 70,000 Washingtonians face higher insurance costs after Trump order, officials say
Oct 18 - Brain disconnections may contribute to Parkinson's hallucinations
Oct 18 - Fighting Parkinson's disease through dance
Oct 17 - Scientists Identify Structure of PINK1, Key Parkinson’s-protective Protein
Oct 17 - Diabetes drug cuts Parkinson's risk by 28 percent, study finds
Oct 10 - Advances in Brain Pacemaker Reduces Tremors, Helps Parkinson's Sufferers Live a More Normal Life
Oct 10 - Medical History Could Help Predict Parkinson's Disease Risk Long Before Diagnosis
Oct 3 - Changes in Olfactory Bulb Explain Loss of Smell in Early Stages of Parkinson’s Disease, Study Finds
Oct 3 - Sleep Disturbances May Worsen Motor Symptoms in Parkinson’s Disease, Study Suggests