Ending Cancer: Cancer-Hunting Nanoparticles

cancer_hunting_nanoparticleWhen it comes to diseases and conditions that have long been thought to be incurable – i.e. cancer, diabetes, HIV – nanoparticles are making a big impact. In the case of HIV, solutions have been developed where gold nanoparticles can deliver bee venom or HIV medication to cells of the virus, while leaving healthy tissue alone. As for diabetes and cancer, the same concept has proven useful at both seeking out and delivering medication to the requisite cells.

However, a new breakthrough may be offering cancer patients something more in the coming years. In what appears to be a promising development, researchers at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) Cancer Center have created a multi-tasking nanoparticle shown to be effective both in the diagnosis of a tumor and attacking its cells – a flexibility that could lead to new treatment options for cancer patients.

gold_nanoparticlesOne of the big challenges in developing multitasking nanoparticles is that they are traditional designed with one purpose in mind. They are constructed using either inorganic or organic compounds, each with strengths of their own. Inorganic nanoparticles, such those made from gold, are effective in imaging and diagnostics. Organic nanoparticles, on the other hand, are biocompatible and provide a safe method of drug delivery.

The nanoparticles developed at UC Davis are made from a polymer composed of organic compounds porphyrin and cholic acid, which is produced by the liver. The researchers then added cysteine – an amino acid that prevents it from releasing its payload prematurely – to create a fluorescent carbon nanoparticle (CNP). The team then tested the new nanoparticle with a range of tasks, both in vitro and in vivo (aka. in a solution of cells and in living organisms).

cancer_killing_laserThey found the particle was effective in delivering cancer-fighting drugs such as doxorubicin (commonly used in chemotherapy). In addition, they found that while applying light (known as photodynamic therapy), the nanoparticles release reactive molecules called singlet oxygen that destroy tumor cells, while heating them with a laser (known as photothermal therapy) provided another way for the particles to destroy tumors.

One notable finding was that the release of a payload sped up as the nanoparticle was exposed to light. The researchers claim this ability to manipulate the rate at which the particles release chemotherapy drugs from inside the tumor could help to minimize toxicity. This is a big plus considering that all known cancer treatments – i.e. chemotherapy, medication, radiation – all come with side effects and have a high risk causing damage to the patient’s healthy tissue.

NanoparticlesIn relation to imaging and phototherapy, the nanoparticle remained in the body for extended periods and bonded with imaging agents. And because CNPs are drawn more to tumor tissue than normal tissue, it helps to improve contrast and light them up for MRI and PET scans. This effectively makes the UC Davis nanoparticle a triple threat as far as cancer treatments are concerned.

As Yuanpei Li, research faculty member from the UC Davis Cancer Center, explains it:

This is the first nanoparticle to perform so many different jobs. From delivering chemo, photodynamic and photothermal therapies to enhancing diagnostic imaging, it’s the complete package.

The team is now focusing on further pre-clinical studies, with a view to advancing to human trials if all goes to plan. And this is not the only breakthrough inolving cancer-fighting nanoparticles to be made in recent months. Back in April, scientists at MIT reported the creation a revolutionary building block technique that’s enabled them to load a nanoparticle with three drugs, and claim it could be expanded to allow one to carry hundreds more.

MIT_nanoparticleTypical nanoparticle designs don’t allow for scaling, since they call for building a nanoparticle first, then encapsulating the drug molecules within it or chemically attaching the molecules to it. Attempting to add more drugs makes assembling the final nanoparticle exponentially more difficult. To overcome these limitations, Jeremiah Johnson, an assistant professor of chemistry at MIT, created nanoparticle building blocks that already included the desired drug.

Called “brush first polymerization,” the approach allows the researchers to incorporate many drugs within a single nanoparticle and control the precise amounts of each. In addition to the drug, each tiny building block contains a linking unit enabling it to easily connect to other blocks, and a protective compound to ensure that the drug stays intact until it enters the cell.

MIT_nanoparticle1The approach not only allows different drug-containing blocks to be assembled into specific structures, but it also enables each drug to be released separately via different triggers. The team has tested its triple threat nanoparticles, containing drugs typically used to treat ovarian cancer – such as doxorubicin, cisplatin and camptothecin – against lab-grown ovarian cancer cells.

The results demonstrated the new nanoparticles’ ability to destroy cancer cells at a higher rate than those carrying fewer drugs. As Johnson explained it:

This is a new way to build the particles from the beginning. If I want a particle with five drugs, I just take the five building blocks I want and have those assemble into a particle. In principle, there’s no limitation on how many drugs you can add, and the ratio of drugs carried by the particles just depends on how they are mixed together in the beginning… We think it’s the first example of a nanoparticle that carries a precise ratio of three drugs and can release those drugs in response to three distinct triggering mechanisms.

In this case, the cisplatin is delivered the instant the particle enters the cell, as it reacts to the presence of an antioxidant found in the cells called glutathione. When the nanoparticle encounters a cellular enzyme called esterases it releases the second drug, camptothecin. Shining ultraviolet light triggers the release of the remaining doxorubicin, leaving behind only the biodegradable remnants of the nanoparticle.

nanoparticle_cancertreatmentThe researchers believe this approach can potentially be used to link hundreds of building blocks to create multidrug-carrying nanoparticles, and pave the way for entirely new types of cancer treatments, free from the damaging side effects that accompany traditional chemotherapy. The MIT team is currently working on making nanoparticles that can deliver four drugs, and are also engaged in tests that treat tumor cells in animals.

Until recently, the fight against cancer has been characterized by attrition. While treatments exist, they tend to be a balancing act – inflicting harm and poisoning the patient in small doses with the hope of killing the cancer and not the host. Smarter treatments that target the disease while sparing the patient from harm are just what is needed to turn the tide in this fight and bring cancer to an end.

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), nature.com, ucdmc.ucdavis.edu

3-D Printed Cancer Cures and Diabetes Tests

future_medicineOne of the greatest benefits of additive manufacturing (aka. 3-D printing) is the way it is making everything – from finished goods to electronic devices – cheaper and more accessible. Modern medicine is also a beneficiary of this field of technology, with new tests and possibilities being produced all the time. In recent weeks, researchers have announced ways in which it might even help lead to a cure for cancer and combat one of the greatest health epidemics of the world.

When it comes to testing cancer drugs, researchers rely on the traditional two-dimensional method of seeing how they work on cancer cells within the confines of a Petri dish. If the drug works well, they move onto the next stage where they see how the drug deals with 3-D tumors in animals. If that goes well, then, finally, researchers start clinical trials on humans. But if it were possible to test these drugs in a 3-D scenario right away, time and money could be saved and effective treatments made available sooner.

petrie_dishesAnd now, thanks to a team led by Dr. Wei Sun of Philadelphia’s Drexel University, this may be possible. Using the techniques of 3-D printing and biofabrication, the research team was able to manufacture tumors by squirting out a mixture of cancerous and healthy biomaterial, dollop by dollop, and create a three-dimensional replica of a living tumor. Because of this, the field of cancer research could be revolutionized.

According to Sun, there’s just as huge a disconnect between what works in two versus three dimensions as there is between what works in animals versus humans. These disconnects are what make developing new cancer drugs so time consuming and expensive. You can’t just rely on a formula when switching to each new environment, testing takes time, results must be documented along the way, and adjustments made at every step.

3dprinted_tumorsWith Sun’s 3-D printing technology, a living tumor can be printed just as easily as cancer cells grow in a Petri dish. The machinery used is capable of printing with extraordinarily high resolution, which allows cells to be placed with incredible precision. The average cell is 20 microns, where as Sun’s system can place individual cells within two to three microns. That means Sun can print out extraordinarily specific, spheroid-shaped tumors in a multitude of different shapes and sizes.

But testing cancer drugs more easily is only one of the many uses of Sun’s technology. Since each tumor is different, there’s the possibility that the technology could be used to simulate individual patients’ cancers in the lab and see which drugs work most effectively on them. What’s more, Dr. Sun indicates that cancer testing is really just the beginning:

Doctors want to be able to print tissue, to make organ on the cheap. This kind of technology is what will make that happen. In 10 years, every lab and hospital will have a 3-D printing machine that can print living cells.

diabetes_worldwideOn another front, 3-D printing technology is offering new possibilities in the treatment of diabetes. Often referred to as a “rich man’s disease”, this condition is actually very prevalent in the developing world where nutrition is often poor and exercise habits are not always up to snuff. To make matters worse, in these parts of the world, the disease is not considered a serious health problem and proper means and facilities are not always available.

Enter the Reach, a cheap new diabetes test developed by a group of students from the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. Relying on 3-D printing technology, the device is aimed at urban “slum-dwellers” who may be threatened with diabetes, but very likely haven’t been checked for it. It’s one of six finalists for this year’s Hult Prize, which challenges students to create social good enterprises.

?????????????????This year’s goal, which was set by Bill Clinton, is to reduce rates of non-communicable diseases among the urban poor. As part of their Social Enterprise Challenge, the 2014 Hult Prize is intended to address the challenge of building “a social health care enterprise that serves the needs of 25 million slum dwellers suffering from chronic diseases by 2019.” And as Dhaman Rakhra, one of the students on the York research team, put it:

We saw that diabetes is growing at the fastest rate among the slum population. It is also a disease that can be addressed, and where you can have an immediate impact. A lot of it is about a lifestyle change, if it’s detected early.

Roughly the size of a postage stamp, the Reach is similar to a home pregnancy test, in that it tests a patient’s urine. If someone’s urine has a certain level of glucose in it – indicating propensity for diabetes – the test changes color. Most importantly of all, the test can be printing out on a normal 3-D printer, making it unbelievably cheap (just two cents a pop!) The students plan to distribute the Square using the Avon business model, where local people will sell on the enterprise’s behalf.

slumsThe Schulich students, who are all undergraduates, plan to refine the idea over the summer, first spending time with a Hult accelerator in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then during a month-long pilot test at a large slum in Mumbai. If they should win the Hult Prize, they will be awarded one million dollars to further develop, refine and finance it. But as Rakhra claimed, the real fun comes in the form of bright minds coming together to come up with solutions to modern issues:

It’s exciting to really show that young people really can make a difference by creating a social enterprise that’s self-sustaining. It’s not something that many young business students really think about as a career path. But it’s definitely something we hope to influence.

The on-site manufacturing of cheap, effective drugs, prosthetics, and medical devices are undoubtedly one of the most exciting aspect of the revolution taking place with additive manufacturing. For starters, it is creating more cost effective ways to address health problems, which is a saving grace for patients and medical systems that are strapped for cash.. At the same time, it shows the potential that new technologies have to address social and economic inequality, rather than perpetuating it.

Sources: fastcodesign.com, fastcoexist.com, hultprize.org

The Future of Medicine: New Cancer Tests and Treatments

cancer_growingWhile a cure for cancer is still beyond medical science, improvements in how we diagnose and treat the disease are being made every day. These range from early detection, which makes all the difference in preventing the spread of the disease; to less-invasive treatments, which makes for a kinder, gentler recovery. By combining better medicine with cost-saving measures, accessibility is also a possibility.

When it comes to better diagnostics, the aim is to find ways to detect cancer without harmful and expensive scans or exploratory surgery. An alternative is a litmus test, like the one invented by Jack Andraka to detect pancreatic cancer. His method, which was unveiled at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), won him the top prize due to the fact that it’s 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests and 1/26,000th the cost of regular tests.

cancer_peetestSince that time, Jack and his research group (Generation Z), have been joined by such institutions as MIT, which recently unveiled a pee stick test to detect cancer. In research published late last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, MIT Professor Sangeeta Bhatia reported that she and her team developed paper test strips using the same technology behind in-home pregnancy tests, ones which were able to detect colon tumors in mice.

The test strips work in conjunction with an injection of iron oxide nanoparticles, like those used as MRI contrast agents, that congregate at tumor sites in the body. Once there, enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which cancer cells use to invade healthy tissue, break up the nanoparticles, which then pass out through the patient’s urine. Antibodies on the test strip grab them, causing gold nanoparticles to create a red color indicating the presence of the tumor.

cancer_peetest2According to Bhatia, the technology is likely to make a big splash in developing countries where complicated and expensive medical tests are a rarity. Closer to home, the technology is also sure to be of significant use in outpatient clinics and other decentralized health settings. As Bhatia said in a press release:

For the developing world, we thought it would be exciting to adapt (the technology) to a paper test that could be performed on unprocessed samples in a rural setting, without the need for any specialized equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone.

To help Bhatia and her research team to bring her idea to fruition, MIT has given her and her team a grant from the university’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The purpose of the grant is to help the researchers develop a startup that could execute the necessary clinical trials and bring the technology to market. And now, Bhatia and her team are working on expanding the test to detect breast, prostate cancers, and all other types of cancer.

?????????????In a separate but related story, researchers are also working towards a diagnostic methods that do not rely on radiation. While traditional radiation scanners like PET and CT are good at finding cancer, they expose patients to radiation that can create a catch-22 situation where cancer can be induced later in life, especially for younger patients. By potentially inducing cancer in young people, it increases the likelihood that they will have to be exposed to more radiation down the line.

The good news is that scientists have managed to reduce radiation exposure over the past several years without sacrificing image quality. But thanks to ongoing work at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, the Stanford School of Medicine, and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, there’s a potential alternative that involves combining MRI scans with a contrast agent, similar to the one Prof. Bhatia and her MIT group use in their peestick test.

cancer_braintumorAccording to a report published in the journal The Lancet Oncology, the researchers claimed that the new MRI approach found 158 tumors in twenty-two 8 to 33-year-olds, compared with 163 found using the traditional PET and CT scan combo. And since MRIs use radio waves instead of radiation, the scans themselves have no side effects. While the study is small, the positive findings are a step toward wider-spread testing to determine the effectiveness and safety of the new method.

The next step in testing this method will be to study the approach on more children and investigate how it might work in adults. The researchers say physicians are already launching a study of the technique in at least six major children’s hospitals throughout the country. And because the cost of each method could be roughly the same, if the MRI approach proves just as effective yet safer, radiation-free cancer scans are likely to be the way of the future.

cancer_georgiatechAnd last, but not least, there’s a revolutionary new treatment pioneered by researchers at Georgia Tech that relies on engineered artificial pathways to lure malignant cells to their death. This treatment is designed to address brain tumors – aka. Glioblastoma multiform cancer (GBM) – which are particularly insidious because they spread through the brain by sliding along blood vessels and nerve passageways (of which the brain has no shortage of!)

This capacity for expansion means that sometimes tumors developed in parts of the brain where surgery is extremely difficult – if not impossible – or that even if the bulk of a tumor can be removed, chances are good its tendrils would still exist throughout the brain. That is where the technique developed by scientists at Georgia Tech comes in, which involves creating artificial pathways along which cancer can travel to either more operable areas or even to a deadly drug located in a gel outside the body.

cancer_georgiatech1According to Ravi Bellamkonda, lead investigator and chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University:

[T]he cancer cells normally latch onto … natural structures and ride them like a monorail to other parts of the brain. By providing an attractive alternative fiber, we can efficiently move the tumors along a different path to a destination that we choose.

The procedure was reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature Materials. It involved Bellamkonda and his team implanting nanofibers about half the size of a human hair in rat brains where GBMs were growing. The fibers were made from a polycaprolactone (PCL) polymer surrounded by a polyurethane carrier and mimicked the contours of the nerves and blood vessels cancer cells like to use as a biological route.

cancer_georgiatech2One end of a fiber was implanted into the tumor inside the brain and the other into a gel containing the drug cyclopamine (which kills cancer cells) outside the brain. After 18 days, enough tumor cells had migrated along the fiber into the gel to shrink the tumor size 93 percent. Not only does Bellamkonda think his technique could be used to relocate and/or destroy cancers, he says he believes it could be used to help people live with certain inoperable cancers as a chronic condition.

In a recent statement, Bellakomba had this to say about the new method and the benefits its offers patients:

If we can provide cancer an escape valve of these fibers, that may provide a way of maintaining slow-growing tumors such that, while they may be inoperable, people could live with the cancers because they are not growing. Perhaps with ideas like this, we may be able to live with cancer just as we live with diabetes or high blood pressure.

Many of today’s methods for treating cancer focus on using drugs to kill tumors. The Georgia Tech team’s approach was engineering-driven and allows cancer to be treated with a device rather than with chemicals, potentially saving the patient many debilitating side effects. Part of the innovation in the technique is that it’s actually easier for tumors to move along the nanofibers than it is for them to take their normal routes, which require significant enzyme secretion as they invade healthy tissue.

cancer_georgiatech3Anjana Jain, the primary author of the study, was also principally responsible for the design of the nanofiber technique. After doing her graduate work on biomaterials used for spinal cord regeneration, she found herself working in Bellamkonda’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow and came up with the idea of routing materials using engineered materials. In a recent statement, she said the following of her idea:

Our idea was to give the tumor cells a path of least resistance, one that resembles the natural structures in the brain, but is attractive because it does not require the cancer cells to expend any more energy.

Extensive testing, which could take up to 10 years, still needs to be conducted before this technology can be approved for use in human patients. In the meantime, Bellamkonda and his team will be working towards using this technology to lure other cancers that like to travel along nerves and blood vessels. With all the advances being made in diagnostics, treatments, and the likelihood of a cure being found in the near future, the 21st century is likely to be the era where cancer becomes history.

Sources: news.cnet.com, (2), (3)

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int