In a year when science has become change both our saving grace against a global pandemic and a target of political pundits, it might be a good time to look back at all the good that science has done for us these past few years. Whether making discoveries that can change little aspects of our daily lives or finding cures for diseases that have hounded humanity, scientists have been hard at work trying to push us toward a brighter future.
A Cure For Ebola
Although we are in the midst of a new coronavirus pandemic, it was not too long ago that pandemic fears were focused on Ebola. This viral illness starts off with fevers and the shakes. It can then progress to uncontrolled bleeding and organ failure.
This often-fatal disease has been researched for years. In 2019, a clinical trial identified a new drug therapy that reduced the death rate from 75 percent without treatment to 29 percent with the new therapy. If Ebola is treated very early, the death rate dropped all the way to 6 percent.
This new drug by Regeneron contains a mixture of antibodies, which are made by our immune cells to clear infections from our bodies. These antibodies specially attack the Ebola virus.
For years, scientists and engineers have wondered why lumps of manganese oxide collect on the seafloor and why this compound seems to build up in water pipes. Caltech scientist Jared Leadbeater finally answered some of these questions when he left glassware containing manganese carbonate to soak in his sink while he was away on a work trip.
When he returned, the normally cream-colored manganese carbonate had turned into black manganese oxide. After replicating the situation in an experiment with both sterilized and unsterilized jars, Leadbeater found that only the unsterilized jars had turned black. This means that some sort of microbe caused the reaction.
After further testing, Leadbeater and his team narrowed the list down to two microbes. They discovered that these bacteria cells could eat the electrons in manganese to make their own energy. This leaves manganese oxide behind.
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The Medusavirus Discovery
A new virus isolated from a hot spring in Japan has been dubbed the “Medusavirus.” This name comes from the mythical monster Medusa who would turn her victims to stone when they looked into her eyes. In similar fashion, the Medusavirus turns its amoeba hosts into stone by hijacking their cellular machinery.
Luckily, this virus cannot infect humans. But it does have a rather interesting set of proteins called histones. They are used to package DNA in the nuclei of cells. However, viruses do not have nuclei, and the Medusavirus is no exception.
Scientists believe that this may provide insight into how eukaryotic life came to be. Eukaryotes are cells with nuclei, like the ones that make up our bodies. When viruses infect host cells, they tend to leave a mark on the surviving host cell’s DNA. The virus sometimes picks up DNA sequences from the host as well. Basically, the host and virus evolve together.
Universal Flu Vaccines
We need to get flu shots every year because flu virus strains change annually. Flu vaccines produce an immune response against the head of a protein on the flu virus. (The protein is called HA).
The problem is that the HA head changes often because it can mutate rapidly. As a result, we need new flu shots every year to provide immunity against the new HA head.
This problem may soon be eliminated. It turns out that the stem of the HA protein, which holds the head, does not change. It is relatively constant among strains of the flu.
A new vaccine created by the scientists of NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center has just entered clinical testing, and it targets this stem instead of the head. If this is successful, a single vaccine would make us immune to most strains of the flu for a much longer time. It will likely be a while before we know the effectiveness of this vaccine. But it is a big step toward finding a universal one-time-only flu shot.
A Treatment For Alzheimer’s Disease
In the brain, the tau protein found in neurons helps to hold their axons together. Neurons are nerve cells, and they send signals across their axons. By sending these signals, we experience sensations like touch.
In people with Alzheimer’s disease, tau proteins are tangled up inside the nerve axons. This prevents signals from traveling down the axons and leads to problems with brain functioning. In addition, the buildup of another protein called beta-amyloid forms clumps between neurons, also limiting neuron functioning.
In 2019, NeuroEM Therapeutics, Inc., tested a wearable cap that sends electromagnetic waves through the brain to break apart the buildup of these proteins. The first clinical study of eight patients found that seven experienced a return of some cognitive function. More extensive studies are underway to try to confirm these results.
In 2016, a team from the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), and the University of Chicago gave one man the gift of a lifetime. Paralyzed after a car accident in 2004, Nathan Copeland lost full use of his body from the chest down. Amazingly, he is now able to both feel and control a prosthetic limb with only his mind.
This huge scientific leap was made possible by implanting electrodes in the areas of Copeland’s brain that control movement and touch sensations. When Copeland thinks about moving his arm, these electrodes interpret the activity from his brain cells to move the robotic arm. When something touches the robotic hand, sensors send electrical signals that stimulate Copeland’s brain to feel the touch.
The National Institutes of Health is providing a combined $7 million to Pitt, UPMC, and Chicago to continue the research.