Top 10 scientific breakthroughs of 2010

Just what it says up there.


Gender effects on disease?

Here is an interesting theory: noting that certain classes of diseases, including allergies and autoimmune problems, are more prevalent amongst women, researchers in the US are proposing that traditional gender roles have a part to play in limiting the exposure of girls to immune-system ‘challenges’ early in life.

Noting that boys are more likely to be encouraged to play actively while girls tend to be supervised during indoor play and prevented from getting dirty, they suggest that the variation in numbers and kinds of micro-organisms that children encounter is significant.

We’ve heard these ideas before, and the study’s authors are not suggesting that girls should be eating a spoonful of dirt in the backyard. However, this is a trend that they argue is important enough, and notable elsewhere in the world where rapid social change has been observed, that it deserves further consideration in studies of epidemiology.

More here. (Oregon State University)

Stem cell-based therapies

I went a little bit link crazy a couple of days ago, after I listened to a lecture on stem cells (sometimes called progenitor cells) and cloning. Much of what the presenter discussed sounded like science fiction: healing spinal injuries, reversing retinal damage, replacing damaged cardiac or brain tissue following heart attacks or strokes…

But it turns out this is all current science. Happening right now. Mostly in trials using mice and the like, but in a few noteworthy cases, in actual clinical human trials.

Anyway, if you are comfortable with the basics of embryology and cloning, you might find the links interesting. Otherwise, read up on the basics of stem cells – what they are, how they were found, what they can do – and then get ready to have your mind blown away.

Spinal Cord Injury – Dana Foundation

Regenerative benefit demonstrated in spinal cord injury

Reconstructing neural circuits using transplanted neural stem cells

Retina created from embryonic stem cells

Repairing the optic nerve using stem cells

Access to health services should be a right

To anyone outside the US it is apparent that the provision of adequate, affordable health care is a muddied and confusing political issue. A recent study should be a wake-up call for opponents of government involvement in the assurance of this service. In short, access to health care is a moral, not political, issue.

The Johns Hopkins Childrens Hospital claims that 17000 children have died in the US within the last 20 years because their families were unable to afford adequate private health insurance. Further, sociodemographic trends predict the likelihood of a child dying; people in economically depressed areas need help.

Surely sanity needs to prevail? If the poorest people in a community can’t afford access to health care, then a secular government must intervene. How can you oppose a system of gauranteed universal health care and still claim to be an ethical citizen?

Now, look here!

The Boston Herald (via Crunchgear) has published a story about the creation of a bionic eye by researchers at The Boston Retinal Implant Project


Designed to be implanted behind the retina, it transmits signals along a fine wire directly into the optic nerve. While this bionic eye won’t provide a great deal of visual resolution and works only for people who were able to see at some time in the past, it holds great promise for helping to restore sight to those who have lost their sight to degenerative diseases of the eye.

Human trials will begin in the next couple of years.

Out for a while – back now, and swinging!

Back again after a week at a school camp. No web access is a real killer. I wonder when it will be regarded in the same way as running water and electricity?

The biggest consumer tech news last week was the complete and utter capitulation of HD-DVD’s main manufacturing backer, Toshiba, in what had been touted as the HD Format War.

Following declarations by the major movie studios that they planned to exclusively embrace HD-DVD’s competitor, Blu-ray, Toshiba decided not to throw any more good money after bad abandoning HD-DVD and leaving a single format for physical HD media. And until broadband web access in homes is fast enough to support a market in downloadable HD content Blu-ray is unlikely to feel much pressure from competition in the near future. Here in Australia, I can see that taking a very long time…

In other news, a failing US satellite was successfully shot down by a sea-launched missile. Nice shooting. Glad to see all those billions of dollars are good for something. However, an alternative was suggested: catching satellites on re-entry in a ‘blanket’ that would allow for a more controlled destruction or even retrieval after the event.

Then there was talk of self-healing rubber; an attempt to sail a wave-powered boat from Hawaii to Japan; implantable, blood-powered communication devices and efforts to make fuel from algae. A big week indeed.