2012: A scientific review

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When looking back over the previous year’s events I always find myself amazed by the number of news stories that have been crammed into the last 12 months. 2012 has been no exception, with headlines covering the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee, and a hotly run US presidential election. Not forgetting the media coverage of the birth of a life changing Gangnam Style. What a year. In such a constantly changing field of study, it is unsurprising that the scientific and technological communities of the world also featured heavily in the news last year. At times both bonkers and bizarre, and at others utterly awe inspiring, 2012 was indeed peppered with advances that not so long ago would have been completely unimaginable.

Firstly, journey into the world of medical science, and in particular prosthetics. In mid-December of last year an article published in the Lancet Journal detailed the successful use of a new treatment type on patient, Jan Scheuermann. He was rendered quadriplegic due to spinocerebellar degeneration, yet via the implanting of two sensors (just millimetres long!) within the motor cortex, Jan has been able to use her mental control to direct the use of a robotic arm. The sensors implanted can respond to electrical impulses generated by the brain cells and, upon receiving 14 weeks of training, it has been possible for patients to independently grasp and transfer objects, gaining “co-ordination, skill and speed almost similar to that of an able-bodied person”.

Branching into the world of superheroes, the work of US researchers from the University of Wyoming may just have made your Spiderman fantasies possible (it’s no big, we all have them). At the dawn of 2012, researchers announced they had successfully created silkworms genetically altered to produce silk materials with the strength of steel (literally). This has been achieved via the transfer of spider genes into silk worm, an effort which now has the potential to produce industrial quantities of this strengthened silk product. Possible applications of this include the creation of faux ligaments and strengthened, environmentally friendly plastics.

In futher medical news, the month of May 2012 also brought with it the prospect of eye implants designed to restore sight to blind patients. The first UK trials of this technology took place in April and have shown unprecedented results with previously blind patients now in possession of “useful vision” after a matter of weeks. Patients, who have been afflicted with illnesses such as retinitis pigmentosa and age related macular degeneration, have reported the ability to distinguish light and dark and observe outlines of objects, with one patient reporting he had “dreamt in very vivid colour for the first time in 25 years”. This treatment trial again relies on the implantation of a millimetre sized chip device into the retina. The chip contains light-sensitive elements designed to take on the function of those cells of the eye which are no longer functional and responsive, thus allowing the passage of electrical impulses.

While the word “breakthrough” may be a bit strong and shiny (inevitably these advancements involve the work of many people over a long time scale) the enthusiasm invoked by the term is entirely appropriate. Omitting the mention of discoveries such as the Higgs Boson particle, the first photographs of DNA, the development of 3D printing and many, many more advancements, 2012 has been a great year for science. Who knows what 2013 may bring…

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