Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Most important discoveries of 2013

2013 was an eventful year for science. Many advances were made in our fight against disease, hunger and thirst. Our world is going towards an energy crises as the petrol, diesel and gas that we use is getting over. Scientists worked on alternate fuels and energy sources, and were rewarded with a few interesting findings. The field of computers is advancing with rapid steps. New materials are being used to build faster and smaller computers. The damage to environment remains a serious concern and a lot of research focused on it.
Over the next few days, I am planning to write about some striking discoveries of 2013 that will have big impact on our lives. I begin with a cure for cancer.

1. Gene Therapy Cures Leukemia
In a landmark piece of medicine, three patients were cured of leukaemia (blood cancer) in March 2013 using gene therapy. The therapy was given to five patients. All of them had received standard chemotherapy, but cancer had relapsed (returned). Their only hope was to receive a bone marrow transplant. Most patients do not survive long enough till bone marrow donation is available.
Scientists used a novel approach to fight against the cancer in blood. They took the immune system cells of the patients, and introduced a new gene in those cells. This gene made the immune system cells to behave like hunters of the cancer cells. The cancer cells have a specific protein on their surface. Our modified immune cells tracked this protein and destroyed the cancer cells.
This technique proved really effective. In one patient, all traces of cancer vanished within eight days. Others took a few weeks. One of the five patients died due to another disease and another died after cancer relapsed. Three were cured.
This result means that we have got a new powerful weapon in our fight against an old and deadly enemy of humankind – cancer. Certainly one of most noteworthy discovery of 2013.

2 - Mind controlled artificial leg
Just as we get ready to sign off 2013 and wave in the new year, I want to dedicate this article to all those who got disabled in accidents, wars, rioting and acts of terrorism during the year. The world remained torn in conflict this year too. An unfortunate result of the conflicts is that a lot of people need artificial limbs.
Artificial legs have been available for many years. In fact, the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has competed in London Olympics and many other events wearing an artificial leg. But it is very difficult to do actions like climbing stairs with these legs.
This year in September, an institute in Chicago demonstrated an artificial leg that is controlled by mind. It means that the person wearing this leg has to only think of the action to do, and the leg will make the movement!
Sounds amazing, isn't it? The way this is achieved is equally amazing. The nerves from the damaged part of the leg are made free and attached to healthy muscle. When the person thinks of moving the leg, brain generates a signal and sends it to these nerves. This signal is picked up by a sensor in the leg. A small computer decodes its meaning and moves the leg as per what the brain wanted to do.
You can watch a video of man walking with the mind controlled leg. It's only about a minute - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQqiKrLnieI
It will take a few years for these intelligent legs to be available in market. They will also have to become cheap so that more and more disabled people can afford them.
I consider this as one of the best gifts of science to the world in 2013.

3. Research on sleep and meditation
Have you made your new year resolution already? If not, I can help you by talking about last year’s research on health. This is path breaking research, because for the first time health in humans is clearly linked to what is called as Gene Expression.
What is gene expression? We can compare it to music. A piano may have lots of keys, but the melody we hear depends on which keys are pressed. Similarly our genes have a lot of instructions, but only some are actually ‘pressed’. Which genes are pressed depends on many factors, one of which is the chemicals present around them. This is called gene expression.
Armed with this knowledge, let’s see last year’s discovery about gene expression and health.
In the study, a group of healthy people with no sleep disorders were allowed to sleep less than six hours for a week. At the end of the week, they were kept awake continuously for about 40 hours. Then a blood sample was taken for testing.
It was a surprising result. The gene expression of 700 genes was altered. Many of these genes were related to immunity, stress reduction and inflammation control.
This is the beginning of a new chapter in medicine. It means that lack of sleep produces chemicals that alter the way important genes are expressed. These changed gene expressions may be responsible for disorders like diabetes and cardiac diseases.
In another important study, a similar experiment was independently done on mediation. A group of people was taught meditation for two months. After training they were told to do half an hour of meditation. A blood test was done before and after the meditation.
It brought up another amazing result. The genes linked to good things like energy metabolism, insulin secretion and aging repair were turned on, whereas those related to bad things like inflammation were turned off.
A lot more research is needed, and such research is going on. But the message is loud and clear. Taking enough sleep and meditation can make you healthy at very basic level – that of genes. How’s that as an idea for New Year Resolution?

No comments:

Post a Comment