Five scientific breakthroughs to cheer you up


The headlines this year have been dominated by war in Europe, soaring inflation and worries about climate change.

But there have also been a series of remarkable breakthroughs in everything from microbiology to astronomy. With the help of the FT’s science desk, we have put together our top five stories this year.

As Clive Cookson, the FT’s science editor, points out, the pandemic raised public awareness of science to its highest level for “many years – perhaps since the 1960s space race and Apollo moon landings.”

1. An alternative to animal testing

Animal testing is a key part of developing new drugs, but scientists are now hoping to use either organs grown in laboratories or computer chips that use stem cells and circuitry to mimic human organs.

Not only would these developments spare animals, but they are also likely to better represent the effects of new drugs on humans, making the tests more accurate.

Diagram explaining what organs-on-a-chip are and how they work

The technology still has some way to go; a lot of data needs to be gathered before the process will fully convince regulators. It is also not yet possible to grow some organs, such as the human brain, in a lab. But the US Food and Drug Administration recently approved a clinical trial for French drugmaker Sanofi based solely on data from organ chips.

Companies are becoming more interested in reducing their reliance on animals for ethical reasons, says Arron Tolley, chief executive of Aptamer Group, which creates artificial antibodies for use in diagnostics and drugs.

“People are becoming more responsible now, from a corporate governance point of view, and looking to remove animal testing when necessary,” he says.

Using larger animals, such as monkeys, is particularly problematic, Tolley adds. “The bigger and cuter they get, the more people are aware of the impact.”

Rare diseases are especially fertile ground for models based on human tissues, says James Hickman, chief scientist at Hesperos, an organ-on-a-chip company based in Florida. “There are 7,000 rare diseases and only 400 are being actively researched because there are no animal models,” Hickman says. “We’re not just talking about replacing animals or reducing animals, these systems fill a void where animal models don’t exist.”

Extract from How science is getting closer to a world without animal testingAugust 14th 2022

2. A new era of astronomy

© NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Getty

The first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope were released in July, capturing stellar nurseries and dancing galaxies.

The telescope gives scientists a view back in time to around 0.7bn years after the Big Bang, hopefully offering new insights on how the universe was formed.

Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at Oxford university and a researcher on galaxy formation, said he was blown away by the quality and beauty of the images. “It knocked my socks off,” Lintott said on Tuesday. “I was sitting in a roomful of galaxy experts when the Stephan’s Quintet image was shown, and jaws hit the floor. The Webb is going to produce some of the most iconic pictures of the space age.”

Webb’s “first deep field”, as the image of deep space released on Monday is known, is a composite picture taken over 12.5 hours, observing at different wavelengths. It shows the cotton-wool-like galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 centrally in the foreground, plus bright white stars, with their characteristic spikes. The features that have most captivated astronomers, however, are the orange, pink and red smears that seem to sketch faint arcs around the central galaxy cluster. These smears and streaks — tinted into visibility using a palette that spans the range of emitted radiation — may represent some of the oldest galaxies seen in such detail, lying farther back in space (and time) behind the cluster.

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Most sobering, perhaps, is that the crowded maiden image of deep space shows a vanishingly small piece of the night sky, equivalent to the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. Each dot or disc represents a galaxy that itself is made up of millions, even billions, of stars. Each grain of sky contains more worlds than it is humanly possible to contemplate.

Extract from A new era of astronomy has begunJuly 13 2022

3. Harnessing the power of bacteria

In August, researchers in Cambridge said they were working on a way to edit the genetic code of bacteria, a development that would have applications across a vast array of sectors.

In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, bacteria are used to create products like insulin, but are susceptible to viruses, meaning that batches of drugs can be ruined. But the researchers, who have created a company called Constructive Bio, say they could produce virus-resistant bacteria.

Another application could see edited bacteria used to create new, fully biodegradable, plastics.

Constructive Bio is developing two platform technologies, Chin said. “One is the ability to build a synthetic genome from chemically synthesized DNA, which has broad implications in terms of being able to build organisms that do all sorts of useful things,” he added.

“The second is the ability to use these reprogrammed organisms to encode the sequences of completely synthetic polymers, which could be drug-like molecules all the way to new plastics and electronic materials. There are whole classes of new molecules that simply don’t exist today, which would have entirely bespoke and differentiated properties.”

Alice Newcombe-Ellis, founding partner of Ahren, said: “The issue for the company will be what to focus on because there is such a broad, vast market it could go after. The application that I’m most excited about is the ability to program polymers to be biodegradable. Most of the plastics available today originate from oil and are very hard to degrade.”

Extract from Cambridge start-up aims to rewrite the code of lifeAug 14 2022

4. Predicting proteins with AI

© EMBL-EBI/AFP via Getty Images

Proteins are the building blocks of life, but so far we only understand the structures of 190,000 out of 200mn known proteins.

But Deepmind, the AI ​​company owned by Google, said in July that its Alphafold program could predict the make-up of most proteins in existence and that it will create a database to allow scientists to rapidly look them up. The breakthrough is likely to significantly speed up research into areas like vaccines, for example.

Being able to easily predict a protein’s shape could allow scientists to control and modify it, so they can improve its function by changing its DNA sequence, or target drugs that could attach to it. For instance, studying surface proteins on a malarial parasite can help understand how antibodies bind to it, and therefore how to fight the pathogen effectively.

“The use of AlphaFold was really transformational, giving us a sharp view of [a] malaria surface protein,” said Matthew Higgins, a biochemistry professor at Oxford university who studies malaria. His team is using these insights to develop a new malaria vaccine, he said.

While scientists will still need to confirm a protein’s structure through experiments, these predictions will provide a massive head start and reduce the time required to complete the process.

Extract from DeepMind research cracks structure of almost every known proteinJuly 28 2022

5. Nuclear fusion record

Diagram explaining how a tokmak is used in experiments trying to obtain energy from nuclear fusion reactions

nuclear-fusion, the reaction that occurs in the sun, has long been seen as an ideal form of clean and endless energy. But it is incredibly difficult to harness.

In February, researchers took a large step forward, producing 59 megajoules of energy, enough power to boil 60 kettles for five seconds, a new record.

In the last few decades about $3bn of private funding has been spent on developing fusion, with some start-ups promising to deliver energy by 2030.

The next big milestone for fusion will be when Iter, currently the largest experimental nuclear fusion reactor in the world, is turned on. The project has been under construction for almost 40 years and has cost nearly $20bn.

Fusion energy has plenty of skeptics given how long it has taken to make progress but its promise as a tool to fight climate change has increased interest over the past decade. Fusion-power would emit no greenhouse gases and supplies of the chemical inputs are essentially inexhaustible. There are approximately 5g of deuterium in every bathtub of seawater and while tritium is less accessible it can be extracted from the commonly occurring metal lithium, or generated in the reaction itself. A small glass of fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years.

Extract from European scientists in ‘landmark’ nuclear fusion breakthroughFebruary 9 2022

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