The 10 Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

From neuroscience and microbiology to stem cells and outer space, scientists churned out results with important implications for the future.

Because science.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Dec. 19, 2013, 10:03 a.m.

Now that the biggest polit­ic­al stor­ies of the year have been ranked, in­spec­ted, and dis­sec­ted, it’s sci­ence’s turn. Not all of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of re­search stud­ies pub­lished this year pro­duced far-reach­ing sci­entif­ic break­throughs, but a se­lect few hold more prom­ise than the rest.

Can­cer re­search had the biggest year, ac­cord­ing to the journ­al Sci­ence, which on Thursday re­leased its list of the top 10 break­throughs in sci­entif­ic re­search of the year. Re­search sev­er­al dec­ades in the mak­ing on can­cer im­mun­o­ther­apy, which tar­gets the hu­man im­mune sys­tem rather than tu­mors them­selves, is fi­nally pro­du­cing prom­ising res­ults in clin­ic­al tri­als, the pub­lic­a­tion’s an­nounce­ment ex­plains. The new treat­ments har­ness the power of the im­mune sys­tem by push­ing T cells and oth­er dis­ease-fight­ing cells to at­tack tu­mors.

Can­cer im­mun­o­ther­apy still has a ways to go un­til it reaches the hos­pit­al room. Right now, the treat­ment works only for some can­cers and a few pa­tients, but many can­cer spe­cial­ists are con­vinced that this is the start of a new, game-chan­ging chapter in can­cer re­search. So do a num­ber of phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pan­ies, which have be­gun in­vest­ing heav­ily in im­mun­o­ther­apy re­search.

Here are the rest of this year’s biggest ad­vances in re­search in the fields of “¦

Ge­net­ics. Dis­covered in bac­teria, a gene-edit­ing tech­nique called CR­IS­PR, which stands for Clustered Reg­u­larly In­ter­spaced Short Pal­in­drom­ic Re­peats, jumped to the op­er­at­ing table when re­search­ers star­ted us­ing it to ma­nip­u­late in­di­vidu­al genes in the gen­omes of plant, an­im­al, and hu­man cells.

Al­tern­at­ive en­ergy. A new kind of sol­ar-cell ma­ter­i­al, called Per­ovskite cells, garnered at­ten­tion be­cause they are cheap­er and easi­er to pro­duce than what’s in­side tra­di­tion­al sil­ic­on cells. They’re not yet as ef­fi­cient as com­mer­cial sol­ar cells, but once re­fined they could work twice as bet­ter.

Bio­logy. Sci­ent­ists used the struc­ture of an an­ti­body to design an im­mun­o­gen, the main in­gredi­ent of vac­cines, for a res­pir­at­ory vir­us that sends mil­lions of chil­dren young­er than 5 to the hos­pit­al each year.

Neur­os­cience. A new ima­ging tech­nique changed the way re­search­ers stud­ied the brain by ren­der­ing brain tis­sue trans­par­ent, mak­ing neur­ons and oth­er types of cells more vis­ible than ever be­fore. The Stan­ford-de­veloped tech­no­logy, known as CLAR­ITY, al­lows sci­ent­ists to see a fully in­tact brain and its com­plex struc­tures in all their three-di­men­sion­al glory. Many ex­per­i­ments on post­mortem brains re­quire cut­ting or sli­cing the or­gan to get a bet­ter look.

Ana­tomy. Re­search­ers prob­ably wer­en’t fol­low­ing the trend of cre­at­ing mini­ature ver­sions of everything, like tea­cup pigs, but they suc­ceeded in grow­ing mini-hu­man-like “or­ganoids” in vitro. The small or­gans, in­clud­ing liv­er buds, kid­neys, and even brains, provide bet­ter mod­els for study­ing hu­man dis­ease than their an­im­al equi­val­ents.

Space. After a cen­tury of spec­u­la­tion, sci­ent­ists fi­nally con­firmed that cos­mic rays, high-en­ergy particles that can reach Earth from any­where in space, ori­gin­ate from debris clouds left be­hind by ex­plod­ing stars, called su­per­novae. Fun fact: Cos­mic rays can shoot pro­tons through space at en­er­gies thou­sands of times great­er than those in the most power­ful particle ac­cel­er­at­or on Earth.

Stem cells. Re­search­ers suc­cess­fully de­rived stem cells from cloned hu­man em­bry­os. The key to this achieve­ment was hid­ing just in­side our cof­fee mugs: caf­feine. The drug sta­bil­ized mo­lecules in del­ic­ate hu­man egg cells, al­low­ing sci­ent­ists to care­fully ex­tract stem cells.

Sleep. Mice stud­ies re­vealed that the brain “cleans” it­self much more ef­fi­ciently after bed­time. Dur­ing sleep, the or­gan ex­pands the chan­nels between neur­ons, which al­lows more cerebrospin­al flu­id, a col­or­less, pro­tect­ive flu­id that cush­ions the brain in­side the skull, to flow through. This helps the brain re­store and re­pair it­self after a hard day’s work of be­ing awake. Mor­al of the study: Sleep is good for you.

Mi­cro­bi­o­logy. Sci­ent­ists con­cluded that hu­mans can thank the old ad­age of “the whole is great­er than the sum of its parts” for their well-be­ing. Re­search on the tril­lions of bac­teri­al cells that call the hu­man body home re­vealed the cru­cial roles tiny mi­crobes play in keep­ing us healthy. Turns out that mi­croor­gan­isms, the ma­jor­ity of which were labeled en­emies of health and tar­geted for de­struc­tion, are ac­tu­ally our friends.

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