The new year is usually reserved for looking back and reflecting over what has just gone. But it’s also a good time to look forward into the upcoming year and think about what it may bring.
Science is no exception to this. 2013 has been a remarkable year; we had our first taste of lab-grown meat, the Curiosity Rover found water on Mars and Richard III turned up in a car park. But what will 2014 bring to the world of science?
The Rosetta Spacecraft will hopefully tell us more about comets and the origins of the universe
The Rosetta Spacecraft was launched in 2004 and has been on a 10 year journey towards the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The spacecraft, which has been in a state of hibernation since July 2011, will wake up on January 20th 2014. It is hoped that Rosetta will begin mapping the comet in August and eventually land a probe on its surface in November, then Rosetta will travel with the comet towards the Sun until December 2015. It is hoped that the information gathered from Rosetta will help to better understand the role comets play in the origins of the universe.
Better diagnostic techniques for cancer
Last year, laboratory supply giants Qiagen teamed up with the company Exosome Diagnostics to develop a less invasive test for cancer and other diseases, which may one day replace standard tissue biopsies. This technology makes use of tiny spheres of fat called exosomes. Exosomes are formed inside cells, before being released into the body where they travel in fluids such as spinal fluid, urine and blood. The inside of these exosomes can contain many bits of information about the cells they were released from, including genetic material such as RNA and DNA. It is hoped that 2014 will see the implementation of technologies which harvest exosomes from body fluid and use the information they contain for early diagnosis and development of new treatment strategies.
Increased research into three-parent embryos
Last year, I reported that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) ethics committee were debating whether to allow research into three parent embryos in the UK. The committee found that there was widespread support for the technique and so approved the proposal. This means that the UK is the first country to approve the use of an IVF technique using the DNA from a mother, father and mitochondrial donor. Parliament are now producing draft regulations and the legislation should hopefully be put into place by the end of this year. This means that 2014 could be the start of a journey which may ultimately lead to the eradication of certain inherited diseases from family lines.
Laboratory-grown organs becoming closer to reality
The last few years have seen a big increase in the number of organs successfully grown in the lab and this technology is now providing real benefits for patients as lab-grown organs, including windpipes and bladders, are being used as transplants.
The ability to grow complex organs, such as a liver or pancreas, would be a huge leap forward which could revolutionise transplantation techniques and help cure diseases such as diabetes. In 2013 it was reported that scientists were able to produce tiny livers and mini brains outside of the body. This amazing technology may one day provide the answer to our shortage of transplant donors, while lab-grown organs derived from a patient’s own stem cells may also eliminate the problem of transplant rejection. Although, it is unlikely the coming year will see the development of fully functioning complex lab-grown organs, these techniques have come forward in leaps and bounds and, hopefully, 2014 will bring us another step closer to growing complex organs outside the body.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the most exciting things about science is that it isn’t always clear what the future holds. We have very little idea really what will be discovered in 2014; I’m looking forward to watching the stories unfold and the discoveries roll in.
Post by: Louise Walker
What do you think 2014 will hold for scientific discovery? Please let us know in the comments below