14 recent scientific breakthroughs

From photos of the infant universe to an energy advancement that could save the planet

Petri dish illustration
Researchers have reported a dizzying number of recent discoveries and achievements
(Image credit: Suzanne Bainton/Getty Images)

Scientists in many fields got little attention for a couple of years as the world focused on the emergency push to develop vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. But that doesn't mean they weren't still busy researching a dizzying series of developments that are now being reported as major discoveries and achievements.

1. Cell therapy for melanoma

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first cellular therapy for aggressive forms of melanoma. The treatment, called Amtagvi, is "designed to fight off advanced forms of melanoma by extracting and replicating T cells derived from a patient's tumor," said NPR. These cells are also called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL). T cells are integral in the immune system but can become "dysfunctional inside tumors." 

"The approval of Amtagvi represents the culmination of scientific and clinical research efforts leading to a novel T cell immunotherapy for patients with limited treatment options," Dr. Peter Marks, the director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. The treatment won't work for everyone, but research by the National Institutes of Health showed a "56% response rate among patients with melanoma, and 24% of patients had a complete disappearance of their melanoma, regardless of where it was," Axios said. "This is the tip of the iceberg of what TIL can bring to the future of medicine," Patrick Hwu, CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center, said to Axios.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

2. Rhino IVF

Scientists were able to impregnate a southern white rhino using in-vitro fertilization (IVF).  Researchers in Kenya implanted a southern white rhino embryo into another of the same species using the technique in September 2023, resulting in a successful pregnancy. The technique could be used to save the northern white rhino from total extinction. "We achieved together something which was not believed to be possible," Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the reproduction management department at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, said in a press conference. 

There are two species of white rhinos: northern and southern. The northern white rhino is on the verge of extinction due to poaching, with only two females remaining. Luckily, scientists have sperm preserved from the last male rhino, which could be combined with an egg from the female and implanted into a southern white rhino female to act as a surrogate. Using a white rhino embryo to test the procedure was a "proof of concept" which is a "milestone to allow us to produce northern white rhino calves in the next two, two and a half years," Hildebrandt said.

3. Pristine configuration

Scientists discovered six exoplanets that revolve around a star in a rare pattern called orbital resonance, said a study published in the journal Nature. This means that "for every six orbits completed by planet b, the closest planet to the star, the outermost planet g completes one," CNN said, adding that "as planet c makes three revolutions around the star, planet d does two, and when planet e completes four orbits, planet f does three."

The system was deemed a "rare fossil" by Rafael Luque, a postdoctoral scholar in the University of Chicago's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "We think only about one percent of all systems stay in resonance," Luque said in a statement. "It shows us the pristine configuration of a planetary system that has survived untouched." The discovery could help further the study of sub-Neptunes, which are planets larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. They are not present in our solar system. "There is little agreement among astronomers about how these planets form and what they're made of — so an entire system consisting of sub-Neptunes could help scientists determine more about their origin," Luque said.

4. Restoring reefs

Coral bleaching has been a rapidly growing problem as climate change worsens. Without intervention, the reefs will continue to deteriorate. To counter this, scientists have explored the idea of a "coral gym," essentially a "laboratory to make corals stronger," NPR said. The goal is to "train" coral to survive more extreme conditions.

Warming oceans and rising temperatures are the largest contributors to coral degradation. "One of the things that we do in this lab is subject them to different environmental conditions and evaluate who's a little bit stronger," Ian Enochs, lead of the Coral Program at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said to NPR. Researchers created a "complex matrix of aquariums" where they can "subject different types of corals to different environments and not only understand how they might survive, but perhaps help them to do so."

5. AI to find aliens

Scientists have created an artificial intelligence model that can detect alien life, said a study published in the journal PNAS. The algorithm can "distinguish between samples of biological and nonbiological origin 90% of the time," after being "trained using living cells, fossils, meteorites and lab-made chemicals," Live Science said. "Put another way, the method should be able to detect alien biochemistries, as well as Earth life," Robert Hazen, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

The AI "does not involve a machine having to look for specific things," but rather "looks for differences between samples," BBC said. "These results mean that we may be able to find a lifeform from another planet, another biosphere, even if it is very different from the life we know on Earth," Hazen continued. "And, if we do find signs of life elsewhere, we can tell if life on Earth and other planets derived from a common or different origin."

6. Inverse vaccines

Scientists may have found a way to calm immune responses for those with autoimmune disorders using an "inverse vaccine," said a study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. The immune system responds to specific identifying markers on invaders like viruses and bacteria called antigens, "but some immune cells react to self-antigens," which are "molecules from our own cells," said Science. "In autoimmune diseases, these misguided immune cells turn against patients' own tissues."

The new research worked by "directing potential self-antigens to the liver," where "immune cells there pick up self-antigens and then stifle T cells that could target these molecules." The experiment was performed on mice. "The method they use is promising and potentially can induce better tolerance," neurologist and neuroimmunologist A.M. Rostami said to Science, adding that "we don't know" whether this approach is "applicable to human disease in which we don't know the antigen."

7. Sequencing the Y-chromosome

Scientists have finally sequenced the entire Y chromosome, one of the human sex chromosomes present in those assigned male at birth. The feat has been "notoriously difficult" because of the Y chromosome's "complex repeat structure," said a research paper published in the journal Nature.

"Just a few years ago, half of the human Y chromosome was missing" from knowledge of the human genome, Monika Cechova, co-lead author on the paper, said to CNN. "I would credit new sequencing technologies and computational methods for this," Arang Rhie, who also worked on the paper, said to Reuters. The X chromosome was fully sequenced back in 2020.

Understanding the Y chromosome can help with a number of health issues, including fertility. Genes have also "been shown to be required for the prevention of cancer and cardiovascular disease," Kenneth Walsh, a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said to CNN.

8. Discovering the motion of space-time

Scientists found evidence that the fabric of space and time gets warped by gravitational waves. "What we measure is the Earth kind of moving in this sea," astrophysicist Michael Lam said to The Washington Post. "It's bobbing around — and it's not just bobbing up and down, it's bobbing in all directions." The findings affirm a facet of Einstein's Theory of Relativity that "space is not serenely empty, and time does not march smoothly forward," the Post said.

What scientists discovered was the "low-pitch hum of gravitational waves resounding throughout the universe," and the findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. While the cause of the hum is not certain, scientists believe it originated from supermassive black holes circling each other, said The Wall Street Journal. "Before now, we didn't even know if supermassive black holes merged, and now we have evidence that hundreds of thousands of them are merging," said Chiara Mingarelli, a Yale University astrophysicist and a member of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), which led the research, to the Journal.

The gravitational wave finding "does not put any torque on everyday human existence," said the Post, "but it does offer potential insight into the physical reality we all inhabit."

9. Gene therapy for muscular dystrophy

The Food and Drug Administration approved gene therapy for children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, said NPR. The treatment is limited to children aged four and five while more research is being done on its safety and effectiveness.

Muscular dystrophy appears in boys far more often than girls and can be debilitating, or even fatal in a person's 30s or 40s. The treatment, developed by Sarepta Therapeutics, has faced some criticism, as there are some concerns about whether it is actually safe and effective.

10. Improving heart health

A daily pill, bempedoic acid, has proved its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease, especially in those who have adverse reactions to statins, said a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Statins are normally prescribed to reduce cholesterol; however, many individuals cannot take them or choose not to take them because of side effects. "Statins are known to cause muscle aches in a subset of people," said USA Today.

Bempedoic acid works similarly to statins, but since it is only activated in the liver, is less likely to cause muscle aches. Side effects include an increased risk of gout.

11. AI mind reading

Scientists have created an AI-based decoder that can turn a person's brain activity into text, said a paper published in the journal Nature. The system is non-invasive, meaning it doesn't require any surgical implants, and uses the same AI technology as chatbot ChatGPT. The technology scanned brain activity and predicted what words a person was listening to.

"We don't like to use the term mind reading," Alexander Huth, who worked on the research, said to CNN. "We think it conjures up things that we're actually not capable of." He said the "real potential application of this is in helping people who are unable to communicate." To allay any concerns about whether the technology could pose a threat to privacy once further developed, Jerry Tang, the lead author of the paper, said everyone's brain data should be private. "Our brains are kind of one of the final frontiers of our privacy."

12. Slowing Alzheimer's

A drug from pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly showed signs of slowing the advance of Alzheimer's disease by approximately one-third, BBC said. The drug, called donanemab, acts as an antibody specifically created to attack and remove "sticky gunk" called beta-amyloid, which "builds up in the spaces between brain cells, forming distinctive plaques that are one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's," BBC said. "We are now entering the time of disease modification, where we might realistically hope to treat and maintain someone with Alzheimer's disease, with long-term disease management rather than palliative and supportive care," Dr. Cath Mummery of the U.K.'s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery said to the outlet.

A side effect, however, is fatal swelling in the brain, which potentially affected three of the clinical trial participants.

13. Mice with two male parents

Researchers successfully created live baby mice with two male parents. According to new research, this was done by manipulating the chromosomes of a male stem cell, which turned it into a female egg cell, said ABC News. "This is the first case of making robust mammal oocytes from male cells," said Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University, who led the research, to The Guardian.

While the vast majority of the mice pups did not survive, the few that did grow up normally and were fertile adults. The genetic manipulation required to create the embryos is "a significant advance with significant potential applications," said Keith Latham, a developmental biologist at Michigan State University. It could be used to treat or prevent genetic disorders, or even help same-sex couples have biological children.

14. Carbon capture

Scientists have found a way to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it to baking soda to be stored in the sea. In a recent study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers also found a way to make carbon capture more efficient by using a hybrid of existing methods. "This simple ability to capture CO2 at a high quantity, in a small volume of material, is a unique aspect of our work," the study's lead author, Arup SenGupta, said to BBC.

Baking soda is also safe to store in the ocean. "Higher alkalinity also means more biological activity; that means more CO2 sequestration," SenGupta said. In turn, the ocean can act as an "infinite sink" with an "immense capacity for accessible CO2 storage lasting hundreds to thousands of years," the University of Edinburg's Stuart Haszeldine said to New Scientist.

However, to truly be effective, carbon capture needs to be expanded, and will only reach the appropriate scale if "it's made a licensing condition of continuing to sell fossil fuels," said Myles Allen from the University of Oxford.

Editor's note: This article will be updated throughout the year.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us