The rate of scientific progress is increasingly fast and near impossible to keep up with, even for those already well entrenched in the field. 2014 was a year, like many years, that had more than a few big science stories to tell. For example, synthetic biologists at the Scripps Research Institute created two novel nucleotides (call them “X” and “Y”) to expand the genetic code from ATGC to ATGCXY, and more remarkably got this “synthetic DNA” to replicate in vivo in E. coli. In a fashion somewhat similar to that seen in the Disney movie Big Hero 6, multiple groups created small robots, often the size of a US quarter, which worked in groups of hundreds to move about in formation, spell out letters, or make simple shapes. Neuroscientists have utilized the tool of optogenetics to create and erase false memories of fear conditioning in rats using light-sensitive channels to activate or deactivate desired regions of the brain. And in an odd line of work that seems like it belongs in the 1800s (and actually arose from experiments 150 years ago), researchers found that blood transferred from young mice can actually rejuvenate old mice, benefiting heart health, muscle strength, neuron growth and even spatial memory. A clinical trial has already begun with 18 Alzheimer’s patients receiving plasma donations from young adults.
Perhaps the most exciting story in 2014 in terms of sheer achievement was the Rosetta mission, the European Space Agency’s €1.4 billion project that launched in 2004 and landed Philae on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 12, 2014. The efforts of the decade long project resulted in a mere three days of Philae transmitting back to the European Space Agency, but they hope that by August 2015 the comet will have moved close enough to the sun again to allow Philae’s solar panels to receive sufficient sunlight to begin transmitting again. The scientists were prepared for only three days of transmittance though, and the data gained from those three days, and the fact that Philae managed to land on a moving comet in one piece and transmit anything at all, was more than enough to excite the scientific space community.
While the Rosetta mission’s success story was a scientific achievement that reached the masses, the scientific community itself may remember 2014 for the multitude of less-than-pleasing stories of scandal, shame, mistake and blunder. The other big space story of 2014 happened on March 17 when the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Extragalactic Polarization) team announced the finding of what is known as “B-mode polarization” in the cosmic microwave background that could provide evidence for inflation theory. This story was more commonly referred to as the discovery of the signature of the Big Bang, since cosmologists hold that the universe is continually expanding and has been ever since the cosmic inflation immediately following the Big Bang. The unfortunate side of the story is that the BICEP2 team later conceded that their data could also be interpreted as the not-entirely anticipated background noise of large amounts of “cosmic dust.” Fortunately, the misinterpretation was an honest one, not something that can be said for the scandal the stem cell research community faced last year.
Stem cell research was shaken greatly with the rise and fall of STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, a method published in Nature in January 2014. Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan published two papers showing that stem cell pluripotency, the ability of a cell to differentiate (turn into) any other cell, could be reached through the culturing of cells in particular environmental stressors (such as acidic conditions). This seemingly simple concept (stress some human cells in a Petri dish to make versatile stem cells) would greatly advance the stem cell field with a quick, easy, and noncontroversial method of stem cell generation…except controversy arose because the idea seemed too easy and ended up being non-replicable. The next several months led to internal and external investigations that found Obokata guilty of scientific misconduct, and both papers were retracted in July. This event served as a talking point for proper scientific peer review and began to expose that the stem cell field in particular, because of its cutthroat and breakneck pace, needs to see increased vigilance in stringent peer-review and replication. The story sadly ends with the suicide of Obokata’s supervisor Toshiki Sasai following hospitalization from stress and exhaustion. But the biggest science of story of 2014 was so well publicized, that you may not have even considered it a science story at all: Ebola.
The ebolavirus is a filovirus that has previously caused smaller outbreaks in African villages, but in 2014 it exploded into a full epidemic in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and only caused true international panic and relief efforts when a few cases arose in the United States, England and Spain. The brave sacrifices that relief workers, missionaries, and local doctors were willing (and are still willing) to make to help treat the sick and prevent further spread of the virus should absolutely not be undermined or overlooked (so here is a shout out to Time Magazine for their “2014 Person of the Year” issue being dedicated to “The Ebola Worker”). However, despite the valiant efforts of some, the Ebola outbreak truly represents an international crisis for pandemic control and exemplifies how truly unprepared we are should a similar crisis arise that is more easily transmittable.
The current outbreak began at least in early 2014, and by March of that year, it was clear to many individuals in the area that a crisis was at hand. West African medics as well as relief workers from Doctors Without Borders were aware of the situation, but local and international health authorities associated with the World Health Organization (WHO) were found to have a deaf ear to the pleas for preventative measures from these groups. In retrospect, the tragedy brought to light corruption in Western Africa’s health officials, and the lack of attention the WHO was willing to give to a disease that was on nobody’s radar, especially with the competition of so many other health issues on the WHO’s funding palette. Of course, this all began to change mid-summer when Ebola started making top headlines in the international news, but these headlines became overshadowed by the limelight of conflicts between Israel and Hamas as well as Russia and Ukraine. By late summer and early fall, the Ebola pandemic only worsened, and finally received due international attention when it reached the United States in September.
Eric Duncan became the first man in America to die of Ebola on October 8, 2014. He arrived in Texas from Liberia on September 19, and five days later visited a hospital where he was sent home. However, as he became sicker he visited again on September 28, and was eventually determined to have Ebola. This event itself was a national security disaster, not only for not monitoring the health of the man returning from Liberia but also for turning him away from the hospital the first time he visited. Furthermore, two nurses that were responsible for treating Duncan also contracted the disease (but have since recovered). A handful of other cases have been reported in the United States, and perhaps most worrisome are the multiple events of unsafe handling of Ebola virus samples at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia where multiple workers could have been exposed to the virus. These events have starkly shown that even the nation that considers itself the most prepared for such a pandemic is lacking in the basic logistics and thorough safety training needed to deal with a deadly virus and infected patients in an urgent fashion.
Progress has been made, vaccines are in development, but human trials are essential to show that they will work, and these are lagging behind. For example, the ZMapp drug which contains antibodies targeting the Ebola virus has been administered to rhesus macaques with positive results, but a randomized clinical trial has not been conducted in humans and mixed results have been seen with its use thus far in Ebola patients. For as awful as the toll the hemorrhagic virus has taken on Western Africa, it could have been worse had the virus been able to transmit outside of bodily fluids. It is true that a large problem with containing the spread resided in social, cultural, and political problems rather than mere scientific ones, but this tragedy should serve as a lesson for the necessity of planning for future epidemics across disciplines including medicine, epidemiology, molecular biology, microbiology, sociology, and anthropology. And hopefully Ebola can be a lesson in preparing for better relations and quicker action between these groups, and those handling the political and economic aspects that scientists may not enjoy but must not forget.
In all, thanks to the Ebola crisis and the STAP stem cell scandal, some may remember 2014 less for big successes and more for the disappointments. The STAP story was certainly the bout of academic dishonesty that received the most press, but there were hundreds of other retracted papers from 2014, including 60 from the Journal of Vibration and Control and over 120 fake papers published with a random text generator, over 100 of which were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Beats me how this ever happened but more than one person has a big mess on their plate now. Additionally, a controversial paper showing negative health correlations with rats fed GMO (genetically modified organism) food that was published in 2012 and retracted in 2013, was published again this year in a journal without going through peer review. The list goes on…but the positive outlook is that peer review and reproducibility issues are being brought to the forefront of scientific discussion, and 2015 is looking to be a year where these processes could become more transparent.
Indeed, 2015 is looking to be a year where some of the biggest science stories will build on the stories of 2014. Genetic engineering and synthetic biology continue to stun scientists with their marvelous creations, and as stem cell biologists continue to push towards clinical trials and patient-centered care, the boundaries of our knowledge about human biology continues to grow as well. Neuroscience is on the move faster than ever, with the start of the European Union’s ten-year Human Brain Project and the United States’ BRAIN initiative. Space travel and exploration also seems to be an increasingly serious endeavor as private companies contribute to the field and NASA plans its mission to finally send humans to the Red Planet. And perhaps the best science story we could hope for in 2015 is the eradication of Ebola, although it is unlikely that the disease can be truly and wholly eliminated, especially with its poorly understood origin, a curbing of the current crisis and prevention planning for future crises is a goal worth achieving. Developments in the treatment and elimination of Ebola is a topic that I will likely return to frequently throughout the year, and next time, I will discuss ten big science stories and themes to look out for in 2015.