Breakthroughs of the Year. 2018’s in Science, Space and Medicine

Jan 2, 2019

Scientific and technical breakthroughs happening across the globe every year, but 2018 was a special year for the space industry and field of Bioelectronics. Researchers were finally able to make big progress in treating neurologic diseases using implanted devices, speeding healing processes, growing human organs for donations and using AI in space for the first time. The latest science news is inspirational discoveries for a new generation of thinkers. How will these discoveries influence other disciplines and humanity? Read on to find out!


Successful Space Flight Of the First Tourist Spaceship 

Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic finally managed a fourth powered test flight of the SpaceShipTwo Unity. On Thursday, December 13, a private suborbital manned spacecraft crossed the conventional boundary of space for the first time in history and reached an altitude of 82.7 km.  

Richard Branson’s company achieved his 14-year goal. Earlier this year, the VSS Unity spacecraft made several test flights, but only reached 52 km.

The latest flight is important for the entire US space industry and global private space companies. The last time anyone went into space from American land was 2011. Since then, all NASA astronauts have flown on the ISS at the Russian Soyuz from the Baikonur cosmodrome.

Virgin Galactic representatives said that the company has touted commercial and NASA-sponsored scientific experiments during this flight. When the results of the fourth flight will be processed, VSS Unity will carry tourist passengers on brief trips to suborbital space. For $250,000 per ticket, passengers will be allowed to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and also see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space.



Scientists Developed
Implant That Speeds Regeneration

Credit: Northwestern University

Engineers at Northwestern University with Washington University neurosurgeons developed a  bioelectronics device that speeds nerve regeneration. A device has already applied to rats with injured sciatic nerves, first tests showed faster regeneration of muscle mass.

The Washington University researchers used a device to provide one hour per day electrical stimulation to the rats for one, three or six days or no electrical stimulation at all. They monitored their status for the next three month and declared that the more days of electrical stimulation the rats received, the more they recovered and gained muscle strength. The device successfully dissolved and was reabsorbed into the body.

John A. Rogers a Northwestern’s co-senior author of the study said that experiments are supported by DARPA and the National Science Foundation. Rogers hoped that someday engineered transient technology could replace drug treatments and will provide therapy and treatment over a shorter period of time. Scientists envision that these systems will provide a therapeutic effect and then naturally disappear in the human body.



Successful Test Of AI-Compatible Assistant Onboard ISS

Credit: Airbus

The space robot assistant CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN), developed by Airbus has successfully passed the first stage of space tests onboard the ISS.  It is expected that CIMON will help astronauts to maintain routine tasks, increase the level of security and decrease possible effects of social isolation.

CIMON looks like a robot head without a body and is intended to be more camaraderie than a task doer. For this purpose, the robotic assistant has an advanced facial recognition system, visual interaction display for making eye contact, dozens of recording devices and ultrasound sensors that help the robot follow the astronaut.

The first tests were conducted under the guidance of ESA astronaut, Alexander Gerst. Developers pointed out that CIMON is equipped with IBM Watson`s artificial intelligence, which allow the robot to predict human needs and possibly dangerous situations. At the same time, developers are confident that in the future, robotic assistants like CIMON can also be involved on Earth, in particular, in hospitals.



NASA Chosen Space Companies For Future Moon Missions

Credit: FireFly

Today we started feeling tangible progress in NASA`s return to the Moon surface. National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose nine companies that now are eligible to bid on delivering Lunar services to NASA within Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Many of these companies are smaller than SpaceX, but already well known and include Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Astrobotic, Draper, Deep Space Systems, Moon Express, Firefly Aerospace (an American company with a research and development office in Ukraine), and Orbit Beyond.

Also, in October, NASA created a call for potential instruments and technologies to study the Moon and send different payloads in a convenient form. The agency wants to learn more about Lunar opportunities, such as possibly existing water, lava tunnels and scientific base buildings. These missions will enable the first robotic lander technologies and demonstration systems that are necessary for future manned missions to Mars. 

The CLPS program will provide contracts with a total value of $2.6 billion over the next decade. NASA will look at the main proposal points when comparing different services, such as technical capacity, bid price, and launch schedule stability. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services set goals on scientific research of the Moon and building a lunar orbiting station called Gateway, which aims to be an outpost for astronauts and spacecraft travelling to the Moon.



InSight Robotic Lander Successfully Attached On Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA safely parked InSight (The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) spacecraft on Mars and on November 26 started scientific study. InSight lander will study “inner space” of Mars (its subsurface) and seek the signatures of the processes that shaped the planets in the Solar system.

InSight represents a NASA Discovery Program mission that uses geophysical instruments to answer questions about the formation of Earth-like planets. The main scientific instruments that InSight took to Mars are a Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow, and a Physical Properties Package (HP).

In the first weeks, InSight will continue to sturdy the landing site, deploy the payload instruments and begin imaging of the ground. Scientists expect that the mission will pursue determining of the thickness and structure of the crust and mantle, the physical state of the core, thermal state of the interior, seismic activity, and survey meteorite impacts on the surface



The first effective eye surgery that was assisted by a robot

Credit: KU Leuven 

On June 2018, surgeons managed to conduct the first-ever successful eye surgery, assisted by a robot. The trial procedure found a place at Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital. Its results were published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Twelve patients took part in the trial. They were randomly divided in two groups: some of them had a traditional manual surgery, while others underwent a robot-assisted surgery. In all cases, the task was to remove a membrane from the back of the eye.

The robot-surgery was almost four times longer – it took 4 minutes and 55 seconds. However, using the robot, surgeons were able to complete operation with equal or even better effectiveness.

According to Professor of Ophthalmology Robert MacLaren, this experiment shows the robots’ strong potential. The next step in using such devices may be to precisely deliver gene therapy to the retina in early 2019.



The first gene-modified children were born

Photo by AFP / AFP  

On November 2018, a Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of the first-ever children with edited genes. The DNA of twins named Lulu and Nana was modified using a CRISPR tool.

The goal of this experiment was to achieve resistance to the HIV/AIDS virus. The eight couples of HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers had signed up voluntarily for the gene-editing experiment. He Jiankui explained that during the pregnancy he “sent some instructions for a gene surgery, and removed the doorway through which HIV infects people.” At the same time, he adds, no other gene was changed.

Such gene-editing experiments are prohibited in the majority of countries, including China. Professor He’s university in Shenzhen was not informed about this project. He Jiankui confirmed that he had financed the experiment by himself.

However, this pinnacle event in medicine and science will raise a number of ethical questions about the new gene-designed generation, born with resistance to some diseases.



A turning point in the cancer treatment

Image: Nobel Assembly 

On October 2018, US professor James P Allison and Japan professor Tasuku Honjo shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for their seminal contribution in cancer treatment.

Cancer tends to be an intractable disease because it can deceive our immune system and avoid attack. Honjo and Allison found a way for our immune cells can attack tumors by turning off some proteins. As a result, newly developed drugs may help patients with previously untreatable cancer.

Immune checkpoint therapy has fundamentally changed cancer treatment. However, immune therapy is not without risks to the patient, because it can trigger undesirable consequences for patients. Also, the long-term side effects of such therapy are not fully understood.

The Nobel prize sum is 9 million Swedish kronor, or about $1.01 million. The scientists said that they are going to continue their research.



First human eggs are grown
outside an ovary

Image credit: University of Edinburgh

On February 2018, scientists at the University of Edinburgh were able to grow human eggs in laboratory conditions for the first time. Such scientific achievement may help to preserve the fertility of children who undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and other women at risk of premature fertility loss.

The experiment has taken 30 years of research and work, but now scientists can reach egg maturity outside of the ovary. However, they still have plenty of work before this breakthrough can be used in practice. It will take a number of years to make certain that the produced eggs are healthy.

Such work also helps to explore how human eggs develop. As we know, the main issues with becoming and sustain pregnancy in space are a low-gravity environment and radiation. This problem needs a comprehensive solution, but maturing human eggs may help to make headway in this direction.



The first body of liquid water is detected on Mars 

NASA/JPL/USGS (Public Domain)

On July 218, Italian researchers reported the discovery of the first known stable body of water on Mars. It is a subglacial lake, 1.5 km below the southern polar ice cap. The lake may have a diameter 20 km.

The finding is important because researchers were looking for signs of surviving liquid water on Mars for a great while. This discovery was made using radar data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft.

The first detected body of liquid water on Mars gives a chance to determine potential life there because “following the water” is a key principle of astrobiology. Though, the plain fact that water exists on the red planet doesn’t confirm anything further. Scientists will continue searching for life in the Marian subsurface.


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