Top Stories of 2012

biotech_alienAs Dec. 31st fast approaches, I find myself thinking about New Years resolutions. And part of that is taking stock on what’s been accomplished in the past year. For me, one of those resolutions was to stay current and share all the new and exciting news from the field of science and tech all my followers people; to the best of my abilities, that is.

In keeping with this, I wanted to create a list of the most important developments of the last year. Many sites have produced a top 10, top 12, even a top 7, list of what they thought the most significant accomplishments were. Well, I wanted to do one of my own! Opinion varies as to what the biggest leaps and bounds were over the course of the last year, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get my say in. Lord knows I’ve spent enough time reading about them, so here’s my comprehensive list of the greatest inventions, developments and advances made during 2012.

I think you’ll all agree, the list packed with stories that are intriguing, awe-inspiring, and even a little scary! Here are the top 12, as selected by me, in alphabetical order:

3D Printing:
cartilage1As far as tech trends go, this one has been in the works for some time. However, 2012 will be remembered as the year that 3D printing truly became a reality. From tree-dimensional models to consumer products to even guns, 3D printers have been featured in the news many times over for their potential and frightening abilities.

However, one of the greatest potential uses will be in the field of artificial cartilage, organs, and even food. As the technology is refined and expands to the field of organic molecules, just about anything can and will be synthesized, leading to an era where scarcity is… well, scarce!

Bionic Implants:
mindcontrolledprostheticPerhaps the years biggest achievement came in the form of bionic prosthetics, artificial limbs which are calibrated to respond to the nerve impulses of the user. As a result, amputees, veterans and accident victims are able to receive artificial limbs that act like the real thing.

The most notable case was Zak Vawter who scaled the 103 flights of Chicago’s Willis Tower using an artificial leg. In addition, two men in Britain had their sight restored after undergoing the first ever case of retinal surgery where bionic implants were placed in their eyes.

Brain Implants:
digital-mind1In September of 2012, scientists grafted an implant onto the brain of Chimpanzee, enhancing its brain power by ten percent. This consisted of an electrode array that was attached to the cerebral cortex of several monkey subjects, researchers were able to restore and even improve their decision-making abilities.

The implications for possible therapies is far-reaching, such as with brain injuries and cognitive disorders. But additionally, it also heralds the beginning of an era where human beings will be able to enhance their intelligence, recall, and memory retention.

Commercial Space Flight:
skylonThough not yet fully realized, 2012 was a big year in terms of commercial space flight. For example, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic announced the first successful fully-loaded “glide test” of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket craft that will be taking passengers into low orbit as soon as all the kinks are worked out of the design.

In addition, Reaction Engines announced a breakthrough with the design of their hypersonic engine, which they claim will be fitted to their proposed spaceship – the Skylon. Capable of achieving speeds of up to Mach 5, this new craft is expected to be able to take off from conventional airfields, propel itself into low orbit, and deliver supplies to the ISS and make commercial trips around the world. No telling when either company will be conducting its first real suborbital flights, but the clock is ticking down!

Curiosity Rover:
One of the years biggest announcement was the deployment of the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface. Since it landed, the rover has provided a constant stream of scientific updates and news on the Red Planet. Though the Mars Science Team did not find the “earthshaking” proof organic molecules, it did make a number of important discoveries.

Amongst them was solid evidence that Mars was once home to large rivers and bodies of water. Furthermore, the x-ray lab on board the rover conducted studies on several rock and soil samples, determining what the chemical and mineral composition of Mars surface is.

Faster-Than-Light Travel:
alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewIn the course of speaking at the 100 Year Starship, scientists at NASA began working on the first FTL travel system ever. Long considered to be the stuff of science fiction, physicist Harold White announced that not only is the math sound, but that his team at NASA had actually started working on it.

Relying on the concept of the Alcubierre Drive, the system involves expanding and contracting space time around the ship, allowing it to move faster than the speed of light without violating the Law of Relativity.

converted PNM file
In October, the world’s first – and illegal – act of geo-engineering took place off Canada’s West Coast. The product of a “rogue geohacker” named Russ George, who was backed by a private company, the project involved the dumping of around 100 tonnes of oron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean. This technique, known as ocean fertilization, was meant to stimulate the growth of algae which metabolize carbon and produce oxygen.

The experiment, which is in violation of two United Nations moratoria, outraged many environmental, legal, and civic groups, many of whom hail from Haida Gwaii, the traditional territory of the Haida nation, who had enlisted by George as part of a proposed “salmon enhancement project”. Though illegal and abortive, the act was the first in what may very well become a series of geoengineering efforts which will be performed the world over in order to stay the progress of Climate Change.

Google’s Project Glass:
google_glasses2012 was also the year that augmented reality became… well, a reality (oh dear, another bad pun). Back in April, Google unveiled its latest concept device for wireless and portable computing, known as Project Glass. Combining an active display matrix, a wireless internet connection and a pair of shades, Google managed to create a device that looks like something straight out of cyberpunk novel.

HIV and Flu Vaccines:
HIV-budding-ColorWhen it comes to diseases, HIV and the Flu have two things in common. Until 2012, both were considered incurable, but sometime in the near future, both could be entirely preventable. In what could be the greatest medical breakthroughs in history, 2012 saw scientists and researchers experiment with antibodies that have been known to fight off HIV and the flu, and to good effect.

In the former case, this involved using a new process known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP), an inversion of the traditional vaccination method, where antibodies were introduced to mice. After allowing the antibodies to reproduce, researchers at Caltec found that the mice were able to fight off large quantities of the virus. In the latter, researchers at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Riems Island, Germany used a new RNA-based vaccine that appeared to be able to fight off multiple strains of flu, not just the latest mutation.

Taken together, these vaccines could bring an end to a common, but potentially deadly ailment, and signal the end of the plague of the 20th century. In addition, this could be the first in a long series of developments which effectively brings all known diseases under our control.

Medical Implants:
enhancement2012 also saw the culmination of several breakthroughs in terms of biomedical research. In addition to the world’s first medimachine, there were also breakthroughs in terms of dissolving electronics, subdermal implants that dispense drugs, and health monitoring patches.

Little wonder then that Cambridge University announced the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk to evaluate future technologies, or that Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”. With all the potential for enhancement, it could be just a matter of time before non-medical enhancements are a reality.

Mind-controlled prostheses:
woman-robotic-arm_650x366Researchers at BrainGate created a brain-machine interface that allows users to control an external device with their minds. The first person to use this revolutionary new system was Cathy Hutchinson, a stroke victim who has been paralyzed from the neck down for 15 years, who used the robotic arm to drink a cup of coffee.

This news, combined with other advances in terms of bionic prostheses, could signal the end of disability as we know it. Henceforth, people with severe injuries, amputations and strokes could find themselves able to make full recoveries, albeit through the use of robotic limbs.

Self-driving cars:
googlecar2012 marked an important year as three states (California, Nevada, and Florida) made autonomous vehicles legal. Self-driving cars, once perfected and produced en masse, will help with traffic congestion and significantly reduce the chance of auto accidents through the use of GPS, radar, and other technologies.

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All in all, it’s been an exciting year. And with all that’s been accomplished, the future is certainly looking a lot more interesting and even frightening. What is clear is that predictions made for some time now are becoming realizable, including replication, a cure for all known diseases, advanced robotics, implants, cybernetics, and even post-humanism. Regardless of where one sits on these developments, be you pro, con, or neutral, I think we can all agree that it is an exciting time to be alive!

Happy New Year to all, and here’s hoping 2013 proves just as interesting, and hopefully a lot more peaceful and sound. And may we ALL find ourselves able to keep our New Years resolutions and build upon all we’ve accomplished so far. And of course, with all the potential for medical and technological enhancements that are coming, I sincerely hope we can find ways to improve ourselves on a personal level too!

New Vaccine Could Wipe Out The Flu

For some time now, researchers and scientists have been trying to develop a way to immunize people against the common flu. Traditional vaccines are available, but for most people, the need to get a shot once a year seems like a bit of a bother. For others, potential side effects are reason enough not to get one, especially when getting one doesn’t guarantee they’ll stay healthy. However, that all may be coming to an end, thanks to research being conducted at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Riems Island, Germany.

The key, apparently, is to use an RNA-based vaccine. Traditional vaccines work by teaching our immune systems to recognize a pair of key proteins, known as HA and NA, found on viruses. But those proteins constantly change due to mutation, and at a rate that requires that new vaccines be produced every year. However, the proposed new kind of vaccine would work by targeting the underlying RNA-driven processes that create the NA and HA proteins, regardless of their precise form.

According to an interview conduct by New Scientist with Lothar Stitz, “the mRNA that controls the production of HA and NA in a flu virus can be mass-produced in a few weeks. An injection of mRNA is picked up by immune cells, which translate it into protein… These proteins are then recognized by the body as foreign, generating an immune response. The immune system will then recognize the proteins if it encounters the virus subsequently, allowing it to fight off that strain of flu.”

What’s more, this new type of vaccine could be produced in the form of a powder, which would eliminate the need for refrigeration. And an RNA vaccine is more appealing to researchers than proposed DNA vaccines because there’s no chance of them getting spliced into the human genome and disrupting normal genetic behavior. In addition, the German research team has also discovered a protein known as protamine, which protects the RNA vaccines from being ripped apart in the bloodstream.

Naturally, there is plenty of testing to be done, and human trials to be conducted to make sure the entire sequence works within the human immune system, sans harmful side effects. But the early results are encouraging and researchers are optimistic. Between this news and the possibility of an HIV vaccine, we could be looking at the end of infectious diseases sometime in the not-too-distant future. But I wouldn’t say that definitively though, since don’t I want to jinx it 😉

Now if only we could find a cure for the common cold…


The End of HIV?

Since it was first observed clinically in 1981, HIV and AIDS have come to be viewed as one of the most deadly and infectious diseases in history, exceeded only by the Bubonic Plague and Smallpox. As of 2010, it was estimated that roughly 34 million people were living with HIV/AIDS, an increase of close to three million from the previous year. And although accurate statistics are sometimes difficult to come by, due to the fact that motrality rates are especially high in underdeveloped regions of sub-Saharan Africa, it is widely believed that anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million people die every year as a result of the disease.

However, researchers at Caltech have been working on a potential solution which may eventually lead to the development of an HIV vaccine. In recent years, biologists have identified a strain of antibodies that are capable of neutralizing most strains of HIV. Led by Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, the Caltech research team is experimenting with introducing these antibodies into test subjects (lab mice) to see if it would act as an effective barrier to infection.

The approach, known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP), is essentially an inversion of the traditional vaccination method. Previously, researchers would focus on designing substances that activate the immune system so as to block infection via antibodies or attack infected cells via T cells. The VIP approach differs in that it provides protective antibodies from the start, thereby ensuring that the HIV virus is killed before it can develop into AIDS, and providing a respite for the immune system which is usually called on to do the work.

And so far, the results have been encouraging. After introducing the antibodies into a series of lab mice, the researchers found that the mice were then able to generate a high concentration of the antibodies throughout their circulatory systems. When they then proceeded to introduce the HIV virus intravenously to the mice, the antibodies protected them from infection.

Naturally, there were concerns going in that human bodies might not react in the same way as the mices’, either in terms of their production of the antibodies or their resistance to infection. However, Baltimore and his team were sure to use mice which have been known to be more susceptible to the HIV virus than others, and administered doses of the virus that were well in excess of what would be needed to lead to infection. In the end, they introduced the mice to 125 nanograms of the virus, 100 times what would be required to cause infection, and yet still the mice were protected.

For those living with HIV, this is exciting news! Though it does not represent a cure for those already carrying the infection, it does mean that future generations can live without fear of the contracting the terrible disease. What’s more, those who have it will no longer have to fear passing it on, either through sexual intercourse to their partner, or through pregnancy to their children. Yes, with continued testing and some eventual human trials, HIV may very well come to share the same fate as Polio, Tetanus amd Typhoid, diseases which were once considered terribly infectious, fatal, and untreatable.