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10 Scientific Discoveries in 2020

Time is a finicky thing. Sometimes it feels like it’s going too fast, other times it feels like it’s going too slow. Add in the unprecedented challenges of 2020 and sometimes it feels like you don’t even know which way is up; nevermind what day, week or month it is. But, through all of this, scientists like yourself have kept striving, discovering and innovating. It’s a testament to the importance of science and technology in society, as well as to the will of the chemists, biologists, ecologists and many others who help ensure the world keeps moving forward. As we get close to the end of this admittedly disastrous year, let’s take a moment to reflect on some of the good that came out of it.

1. SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 Research

COVID-19 Research
COVID-19 Research

On Thursday night, the FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee voted 17-4 with 1 abstention to approve the emergency use authorization of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine BNT162b2. Friday morming, the FDA informed Pfizer and BioNTech that is will "rapidly work toward finalization and issuance of an emergency use authorization." If that is the case, vaccination against COVID-19 in the United States could begin as early as next week, as the FDA also said it has already notified the CDC and Operation Warp Speed so they can plan distribution accordingly.

The research and strides scientists have made on their quest to understand the novel coronavirus and put a halt to the global pandemic is truly unprecedented. Laboratory Equipment’s COVID-19 Resource Guide provides a chronological compilation of COVID-19 articles we have featured this year. The list is a visual representation of the scientific method—from early hydroxychloroquine touting to its removal as a treatment, from a shortage of PPE to 3-D printed masks, from a Phase I vaccine trial to 95% efficacy. Scientists did their work to figure out which treatments would work and which would not. And now, thanks to them, it finally feels like there is a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.

2. Artificial Intelligence Spots Breast, Prostate Cancer Near Perfectly

In January, researchers published findings showing Google’s DeepMind AI system outperformed 6 human radiologists in spotting abnormalities on the X-ray images of nearly 29,000 women. For the study, the AI system demonstrated a 5.7% reduction in false positives. In an unrelated study in July, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh trained an AI program to recognize prostate cancer from tissue slides. During testing, the AI demonstrated 98% sensitivity and 97% specificity at detecting prostate cancer—significantly higher than previously reported. This AI system was the first to extend beyond cancer detection, reporting high performance for tumor grading, sizing and invasion of the surrounding nerves—all clinically important features part of a typical pathology report.

3. CRISPR-Cas9 Used for the First Time Within Human Body

In March, doctors at Oregon Health & Science University performed the first-ever in vivo CRISPR gene editing procedure to address a blindness-causing gene mutation as part of the BRILLANCE clinical trial. Patients in the trial have Leber congenital amaurosis, caused by a gene mutation that keeps the body from making a protein needed to convert light into signals. In these cases, gene replacement therapy is not an option, so scientists edited/deleted the mutation by making two cuts on either side of it, banking on the ends of the DNA reconnecting to allow the gene to work as it should. In earlier tests in human tissue, mice and monkeys scientists were able to correct half of the cells with the disease-causing mutation, which was more than what is needed to restore vision.

4. Australia and California Burn in Unprecedented Wildfires

A study of the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season found that 21% of Australia's forests (excluding Tasmania) have burnt down, an amount described as unprecedented and "greatly exceed[ing] previous fires both within Australia and globally" over the past 20 years. “The unusual extent of the fires has led many to name Australia ‘ground zero’ for climate change, motivating domestic and international demands for Australia and other wealthy nations to strengthen their mitigation efforts,” reads an editorial accompanying the published study in Nature Climate Change. California experienced much of the same. As of Dec. 9, 2020, more than 9,639 fires have burned 4,359,517 acres, more than 4% of the state's roughly 100 million acres of land, making 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in California's modern history.

5. Successful Immunotherapy for Canine Bone Cancer Advances to Human Brain Cancer Trial

In June, veterinary researchers at the University of Missouri leveraged personalized medicine to successfully treat bone cancer in 14 dogs. By creating a vaccine from a dog’s own tumor, the scientists were able to target specific cancer cells and avoid the toxic side effects of chemotherapy. Compared with the average survival time with amputation and chemotherapy, the dogs that underwent the immunotherapy treatment lived several months longer—5 lived for more than two years after they started treatment. The study’s successful results helped the research team secure FDA approval to test the method on human brain cancer patients.

6. The Age of Commercial Spaceflight Begins

When the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience launched in November, it did a lot more than shuttle four astronauts up to the International Space Station. The launch marked the first time a commercial entity successfully delivered NASA astronauts to the high-tech lab floating in space. A few months earlier, the space program achieved another first. When the newest Mars rover, Perseverance, launched in July, it became the first rover powered entirely by American-made plutonium. The United States stopped producing plutonium-238 in 1988. In the years since, the U.S. used its stockpile and supplemented by purchasing from Russia, but that agreement dissolved in 2010. As a result, in 2012, the Obama Administration and NASA came to an agreement with the Department of Energy to resume production of plutonium-238 using NASA funds. The successful launch of Perseverance was the biggest milestone yet in that $15 million per year program.

7. CERN Detects New Type of Particle Never Before Seen

Scientists working on the LHCb collaboration at CERN observed a type of four-quark particle never seen before. The discovery is likely to be the first of a previously undiscovered class of particles. The finding will help physicists better understand the complex ways in which quarks bind themselves together into composite particles, such as the ubiquitous protons and neutrons that are found inside atomic nuclei. “Particles made up of four quarks are already exotic, and the one we have just discovered is the first to be made up of four heavy quarks of the same type, specifically two charm quarks and two charm antiquarks,” said Giovanni Passaleva, head of the LHCb collaboration.

8. Archeologists Push Back Colonization of Americas by 15,000 Years

Archeological analysis of tools found in a Mexican cave and DNA analysis of sediment in the cave reveal a different story of the colonization of the Americas. Evidence says humans visited the cave 30,000 years ago—15,000 years earlier than thought. The findings challenge the commonly held theory that the Clovis people were the first human inhabitants of the Americas 15,000 years ago. “By the time the famous Clovis population entered America, the very early Americans had disappeared thousands of years before. There could have been many failed colonization’s that were lost in time and did not leave genetic traces in the population today,” said archaeologist Ciprian Ardelean of the University of Zacatecas in Mexico and the University of Exeter.

9. Microplastic Pollution Worsens, Recorded in Antarctic Sea Ice for the First Time

For the first time ever, researchers identified microplastic contamination in Antarctic sea ice. The study, by researchers at the University of Tasmania, analyzed an ice core collected in East Antarctica in 2009 and identified 96 microplastic particles from 14 different types of polymer. “The remoteness of the Southern Ocean has not been enough to protect it from plastic pollution, which is now pervasive across the world’s oceans,” said lead researcher Anna Kelly. An October study by Australia researchers confirmed Kelly’s thoughts. CSIRO researchers recorded an estimated 14 million tons of microplastics on the sea floor in the first global estimate. The amount is more than double what was last estimated to be on the ocean bottom.

10. Despite an Amazing Discovery, the Great Barrier Reef is in Immense Danger

Since the first mass bleaching event in 1998, there has been very little good news for the Great Barrier Reef. In October, however, scientists discovered a massive detached coral reef taller than the Empire State Building. The discovery is the first of its kind in 120 years. The good news stops there, however. April brought the third mass coral bleaching event in just five years, fifth since the first in 1998. The 2020 bleaching event is the first to strike all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef. An unrelated study completed in October 2020 showed the reef has lost 50% of its corals in the past 30 years. If we do end up losing the reef, an Australia company committed to biodiversity it doing what it can now to ensure it can be rebuilt in the future. This yea, The Living Coral Biobank began collecting living fragments, tissue and DNA samples of corals from the Great Barrier Reef to create a biobank for potential future restoration and rehabilitation activities.

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