The big scientific breakthroughs of 2017 from gene therapy to a peanut allergy cure
Landmark gene therapy
The Food and Drink Administration approved the first “living drug,” a medicine that genetically reprograms patients’ immune cells to seek and destroy cancer. The gene-altering therapy, which is marketed as Kymriah, was cleared as a last-resort treatment for children and young adults with an aggressive form of leukemia. The decision came after a pivotal clinical trial in which 83 percent of 63 critically ill patients who were given the treatment rapidly became cancer-free. “We’re entering a new frontier in medical innovation,” says FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
Paralyzed man moves
An experimental brain implant has enabled a man who is paralyzed from the neck down to pick up a coffee and take a sip. Bill Kochevar, 56, had been unable to move his hands or arms after suffering a cycling accident eight years ago. Scientists fitted him with two sets of electrodes—one in his brain, the other in his arm—and linked them to a computer. The computer then turned his brain signals into electrical impulses and sent them to the muscle-stimulating electrodes in his arm. This “neuro-prosthetic” system effectively bypasses his damaged spinal cord. “I thought about moving my arm and I could move it,” says Kochevar. “I’m still wowed every time I do something.”
Curing peanut allergies
New research into a promising form of treatment for peanut allergy suggests this common and potentially fatal condition could one day be a thing of the past. Back in 2013, scientists in Australia gave 56 children with the allergy either a daily dose of peanut protein combined with probiotics, or a placebo. After 18 months, 82 percent of those who received the treatment could tolerate peanuts, compared with just 4 percent of the placebo group. A follow-up this year found that 70 percent of those who had received the protein-probiotic were still essentially allergy-free. The treatment, which needs larger trials, reprograms the body’s immune system to become tolerant of peanuts.
Seeing the universe
Astronomers this year watched two neutron stars colliding in a far-off galaxy, a landmark moment that ushers in a new era for space research. The cataclysmic collision, known as a kilonova, took place 130 million years ago. It created a flash of intense light and a burst of gravitational waves—faint ripples in the fabric of space-time—that reached Earth in August. Until then, astronomers had identified gravitational waves only from the collision of black holes, which aren’t visible. But the kilonova produced a cosmic fireworks display of gamma rays, radio waves, X-rays, and visible light. Researcher Laura Cadonati said it was like “the transition from looking at a black-and-white picture of a volcano to sitting in a 3-D IMAX movie that shows the explosion of Mount Vesuvius.”
Giza’s hidden chamber
The Great Pyramid of Giza is still revealing its secrets, more than 4,500 years after it was built. Using a new imaging technique called muon radiography, scientists detected a massive void inside the Egyptian structure measuring 98 feet long and 26 feet high. The purpose of this hidden space, which is situated above two burial chambers, remains a mystery. But the researchers who discovered it believe it must be there for a reason. “When you know the pyramid, and you know the perfection of the pyramid,” they wrote, “it’s very strange to imagine that [this was an] accident.” ■