Breaking Down the Top Scientific Discoveries of 2017

BY EMILY GRAHAM ’19

Health and Science determined these discoveries, breakthroughs and other exciting developments as the best and most influential health- and science-related news last year. 

Gravitational Waves

On Aug. 17, 15 percent of the world’s astronomers had their eyes on the sky to see what would happen when two neuron stars — very dense stars, usually one of the last stages in a star’s life cycle — collide. According to the Washington Post, gravitational waves were detected from the collision at several different locations around the world. 

The detection of gravitational waves from a collision of such extent can lead to understanding about the energy, mass and life cycle of stars. Michelle Starr and Signe Dean of ScienceAlert.com summed up the findings published in Physical Review Letters by two groups of scientists that recorded data from the neuron collision. These groups, the Ligo Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration, deduced some major results from this discovery. 

First, they concluded that Einstein was correct in his prediction that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, as the gamma waves from the massive explosion arrived to earth at the same time as the gravitational waves. Second, they found that heavy metals such as gold and platinum originate in neuron stars, and that our estimate on the age of the universe is remarkably close to the data received from the collision of the two stars.

Artificial Womb

According to NPR and NewsWEEK, scientists have successfully designed and tested an artificial womb. Despite ethical concerns surrounding the project, the womb could be implemented to aid in the development of extremely premature infants. The womb, consisting of a plastic bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid, successfully grew a healthy lamb born at 23-24 weeks. This system, according to Emily Partrige and her associates published in Nature Communications, includes a “closed ‘amniotic fluid’ circuit that closely reproduces the environment of the womb.”

According to the World Health Organization, 15 million babies are born prematurely every year and account for 1 million deaths of children under the age of 5. The use of a system to help aid in the proper development of infants could help decrease the mortality rate caused by early birth and its defects.

Male Contraceptive

Huge strides were made in male contraception in 2017. Two different types of gel have been invented to be used in dramatically different ways to prevent conception. The first is a gel which, according the Independent Paper, is starting trials this year. The gel is rubbed on the upper arms and shoulders of men every day. It soaks into their bloodstream and provides hormonal treatment to decrease the number of sperm produced by using a combination of progestin and testosterone. The study will include over 400 people and run for 4 years.

Another form of gel contraceptive will hopefully begin clinical trials in the next year according to the Vasalgel website. The gel is injected into the vas deferens and creates a barrier to block sperm from traveling down the tube. This gel allows for fluid to pass through, which may be more comfortable than a vasectomy. This contraception proved 100% effective in monkeys over two different mating seasons according to a study in Biomed Central done by Angela Colagross-Schouten and colleagues at the University of California Davis. The contraceptive is effective for a few years and is easily reversible with injection of a solution that removes the barrier. 

Grow human organs in pigs

CRISPR, a technique used to cut out parts of DNA and replace it with the desired sequence, is already a hot topic in the biological world. Scientists, according to the Atlantic, have taken genetic engineering one step further: to genetically engineer pigs as organ donors. Xenotransplants, the process of transplanting organs from one species to another, wouldn’t work going from an ordinary farm animal directly into a human. Pig DNA has sequences which code for viruses that infect human cells, so the human body would become infected if introduced to an organ from a pig. The use of CRISPR to edit the genome of pig embryos can cut out these sequences of DNA which infect human cells makes them a viable source for human transplants. 

The University of Alabama, the institution at the forefront of xenotransplant, hopes to perform the first kidney transplant from pigs to humans by 2021. According to David Cooper, a surgeon at University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine this would change the face of modern medicine. People would no longer have to wait for an acceptable human donor, and instead harvest the organ from a pig to be directly transplanted into the patient.

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