2014: The Best in ScienceBy Staff Writer 19 December 2014 | Categories: feature articles
Last month, the Philae lander left its mothership Rosetta, 10 years after it started its historic comet chase. Despite the less-than-ideal hop onto comet 67P/Churyomov-Gerasimenko, 510 million kilometres from Earth, Philae streamed amazing images of the comet and a chemical analysis of a surface sample back to Earth before its power ran out. It’s the first mission to orbit a comet and land a probe on its surface and it was planned to later accompany the cosmic icy dust cluster on its journey towards the Sun. As comets carry organic molecules, scientists hope that the Rosetta mission will help to unlock the mystery of life on Earth – just like its namesake stone helped to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Paralysed man walks again
After nearly two years of being paralysed from the chest down, a Polish man, Darek Fidyka, experienced the joy of walking again. The feat comes after a groundbreaking nerve cell graft, in which specialised odour-sensing nerve cells were transplanted to the severed spinal cord. Doctors removed a cluster of nerve cells at the top of the nose, just under the brain, and grew the cells in culture. The cells were then injected directly above and below the spinal injury site. Four strips of nerve tissue from the ankle were used to bridge the gap in the spinal cord and served as a guide along which the new spinal nerves could grow. Six months after the transplant, Fidyka regained some feeling in his feet and was able to take his first tentative steps.
The biggest dinosaur ever
Earlier this year, scientists described Dreadnoughtus schrani, a massive plant-eating Titanosaur that lived about 77 million years ago – the biggest dinosaur ever. The description came after almost 10 years’ excavation and analysis of the pristinely preserved skeleton from Patagonia, Argentina. From the bones of the nearly complete skeleton scientists estimated that Dreadnought tipped the scales at 59 tonnes and was about 26 m long, its tail alone whipping about at just over 9 m. The discovery will help us to understand more about the biology of massive land animals and could give insight into how physiological constraints influence the upper size limit of life on land.
Killing cancer cells
Once cancer cells enter the bloodstream and spread unimpeded through the body, there’s little we can do to stop their onslaught. But science is fighting back – and may well be getting the upper hand. In a study earlier this year, scientists reported developing a cancer-destroying carrier coated with two proteins, which, in theory, can be released directly into a patient’s bloodstream. One protein binds to the surface of white blood cells, while the other binds briefly to a cancer cell, activates that cell’s self-destruct mechanism and then disengages safely to move on to its next target. The remarkable success achieved in the lab with human blood samples is encouraging and scientists hope that they will soon be able to test the concept in live animal models and later also in clinical trials.
Article first published in TechSmart 135 (December 2014).
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