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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.

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