Friday, April 06, 2007

British scientists grow part of a human heart from stem cells

Here's one of those "isn't-science-brilliant" stories, pure and simple. We've heard about the potential for stem cell research for soooo long now and work has been going reasonably steadily - everything from extracting stem cells from various sources, working out how to turn them into useful tissues to navigating a tricky ethical minefield.

A story I wrote for the Guardian this week describes work by Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub of Harefield Hospital and Imperial College. His research team has been working for more than a decade to grow heart tissue for transplants.

The follow-up to the story, by other newspapers and broadcast outlets, interviewed patients and scientists to guage how excited they were about the work - I heard someone on the Today programme this morning talking about how her daughter had just had heart surgery and that work like Prof Yacoub's gives her hope for her child's future. remarkable stuff, I though but I leave you to judge for yourself...

A British research team led by the world's leading heart surgeon has grown part of a human heart from stem cells for the first time. If animal trials scheduled for later this year prove successful, replacement tissue could be used in transplants for the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from heart disease within three years.

Sir Magdi Yacoub, a professor of cardiac surgery at Imperial College London, has worked on ways to tackle the shortage of donated hearts for transplant for more than a decade. His team at the heart science centre at Harefield hospital have grown tissue that works in the same way as the valves in human hearts, a significant step towards the goal of growing whole replacement hearts from stem cells.

According to the World Health Organisation, 15 million people died of cardiovascular disease in 2005; by 2010, it is estimated that 600,000 people around the world will need replacement heart valves. "You can see the common pathway of death and suffering is heart failure," said Prof Yacoub. "Reversing heart failure could have a major impact."

Growing replacement tissue from stem cells is one of the principal goals of biology. If a damaged part of the body can be replaced by tissue that is genetically matched to the patient, there is no chance of rejection. So far, scientists have grown tendons, cartilages and bladders, but none of these has the complexity of organs, which are three-dimensional structures of dozens of different types of cells.

To crack the problem, Prof Yacoub assembled a team of physicists, biologists, engineers, pharmacologists, cellular scientists and clinicians. Their task - to characterise how every bit of the heart works - has so far taken 10 years. The progress of his team and that of colleagues around the world will be published in August in a special edition of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Prof Yacoub said his team's latest work had brought the goal of growing a whole, beating human heart closer. "It is an ambitious project but not impossible. If you want me to guess I'd say 10 years. But experience has shown that the progress that is happening nowadays makes it possible to achieve milestones in a shorter time. I wouldn't be surprised if it was some day sooner than we think."

Currently, many people suffering from heart valve disease have artificial replacement valves. Though they save lives, the artificial valves are far from perfect. They perform none of the more sophisticated functions of living tissue, children need their valves replaced as they grow, and patients need a lifetime of drugs to prevent complications after surgery.

"The way a living valve functions, it anticipates haemodynamic events and responds and changes its shape and size. It's completely different from an artificial valve which will just open and shut. The heart muscle itself will appreciate something which will make it free to contract properly," said Prof Yacoub.

Adrian Chester, one of the lead scientists at the Harefield centre, has focused on characterising the valves in the heart. "You have mediators in blood or released locally in the valve that can make parts of the valve contract and relax. That work has then extended into looking at the incidence of nerves in the valve - these can cause the types of contractions and relaxations in a very specific way."

By using chemical and physical nudges, the scientists first coaxed stem cells extracted from bone marrow to grow into heart valve cells. By placing these cells into scaffolds made of collagen, Dr Chester and his colleague Patricia Taylor then grew small 3cm-wide discs of heart valve tissue. Later this year, that tissue will be implanted into animals - probably sheep or pigs - and monitored to see how well it works as part of a circulatory system.

If that trial works well, Prof Yacoub is optimistic that the replacement heart tissue, which can be grown into the shape of a human heart valve using specially-designed collagen scaffolds, could be used in patients within three to five years.

Growing a suitably-sized piece of tissue from a patient's own stem cells would take around a month but he said that most people would not need such individualised treatment. A store of ready-grown tissue made from a wide variety of stem cells could provide good matches for the majority of the population.

Prof Yacoub's inspiration has come not only from other scientists but also from an unexpected source - the celebrated British artist, Antony Gormley, who has donated a sculpture to the heart science centre. "We need a lot of experts from different fields but we also need a lot of imagination and a lot of understanding of how form interacts with function," said Prof Yacoub. "Art gives a lot of inspiration and beauty. And beauty is part of science."

Mr Gormley, who has also contributed to the upcoming special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society with an article on the relationship between form and function in sculpture, said he admired the universalism with which Prof Yacoub approached his work. "He manages to do the Robin Hood job in a very important way for the benefit of all humanity. I found in him a fellow traveller in terms of trying to do things at the fringes of the possible with the highest levels of input in terms of technology and intelligence. Everybody breathes air, everybody pumps blood."


Sunday, March 25, 2007


It's been a while I know. The three of you who read these posts will be happy to know, however, that I've been busy on the work front and come up with a few extra bits and pieces for the Guardian's science podcast. That, by the way, is going from strength to strength. We have a new myspace page so please become our friend and leave us some lovely comments.

On the articles front, here's something I did for the paper at the weekend on people's fascination for monsters of the deep. The article in the paper is a shortened version of the piece below, spurred on by the discovery of a Colossal squid in the Ross Sea by New Zealand fisherman.

Before Google Earth come along, cartographers would often write three words on the edge of their maps, a shorthand for the mysteries that people were convinced lay beyond the edge of the known world: here be monsters. Fuelled by tall tales of mermen and sea serpents recounted by generations of world-weary sailors, the oceans of the world became a repository for legions of terrifying creatures.As sea monsters go, the Kraken is king. The size of a floating island, legend has it that the squid-like creature could cripple warships with its immense tentacles, dragging unlucky sailors into whirlpools and on to the dark of the ocean below. As Alfred Tennyson put it: "Far far beneath in the abysmal sea/His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep/the Kraken sleepeth”.

Fishermen found a real-life Kraken last month in the Ross Sea, off the coast of Antarctica. The largest ever Colossal squid ever seen, the 450kg monster was hauled off to Te Papa Museum in New Zealand. Though scientists are only beginning to study the animal - their immediate problem seems to be how to defrost the animal without damaging it - there is already little doubt that it will provide a remarkable insight into life in the cold southern oceans.

The fascination with big squid-like creatures, the real-life monsters of the deep, is nothing new. When Pierre Aronnax, the marine biologist on the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, sees giant squid hovering next to the submarine, he describes “a horrible monster worthy to figure in the legends of the marvellous. It was an immense cuttlefish, being eight yards long. It swam crossways in the direction of the Nautilus with great speed, watching us with its enormous staring green eyes...The monster’s mouth, a horned beak like a parrot’s, opened and shut vertically. Its tongue, a horned substance, furnished with several rows of pointed teeth, came out quivering from this veritable pair of shears. What a freak of nature, a bird’s beak on a mollusc!”

A gargantuan Kraken also made a guest appearance in last summer’s blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, dragging Jack Sparrow underwater as the credits rolled.

In the real world, only a handful of big squids are found every year, usually half-digested in the stomachs of sperm whales, or dead or dying near the surface of the ocean. No-one has much idea where they live, what they eat, how they move or how they reproduce. Almost everything written in books about the behaviour of these animals is educated guesswork.

When a group of squids attack the Nautilus, Captain Nemo is left holding back tears at the loss of a crewmate. In reality, giant squid are less diabolical: a large specimen might eat 50kg of food every day but probably does it by hovering quietly in the water, waiting for some unsuspecting smaller squid or large fishes hove into view. The Kraken described by Tennyson had more in common with the Colossal squid, which is thought to be a more aggressive predator that roams at depths of 2,000m. But so far, even they haven’t pulled any ships into whirlpools, sailors and all.

Whatever fear there is of these unremitting terrors that lie deep in the ocean, it’s worth talking comfort from something hinted at by Tennyson and which has been proved right time and again - the monsters of the deep probably aren’t meant to meet people. Most, like his Kraken, come to a withering end if they stray out of their comfort zones in the deep ocean. “In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.”


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Common cold virus may be new weapon to fight cancer

A good news story for a change - doubly so because it's from gene therapy. Leonard Seymour, based at Oxford University and president of the British Society for Gene Therapy, is leading work on using viruses to kill cancer cells, a completely new way to tackle the disease. When the human genome project was completed a few years ago, people thought that biologists would be able to play with genes immediately and we would usher in a new world of treatments and understanding of disease. Gene therapy, as it was called, would be our saviour.

It was all a touch overblown (much of it media hype to be honest) and it's taking a bit longer than expected but that doesn't take away from the value of the emerging research. Expect to see more from the gene therapists in the coming years.

To put Prof Seymour's work into a bit more context with other cancer treatments, I posted on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog about whether this was "the" cure for cancer.

Common cold virus may be new weapon to fight cancer

· Human trials begin this year
· Scientists say move is 'exciting'

Thursday January 11, 2007
The Guardian

The adenovirus is one of two cold viruses likely to be examined in the first trials.

British scientists are preparing to launch trials of a radical new way to fight cancer, which kills tumours by infecting them with viruses like the common cold.

If successful, virus therapy could eventually form a third pillar alongside radiotherapy and chemotherapy in the standard arsenal against cancer, while avoiding some of the debilitating side-effects.

Leonard Seymour, a professor of gene therapy at Oxford University, who has been working on the virus therapy with colleagues in London and the US, will lead the trials later this year. Cancer Research UK said yesterday that it was excited by the potential of Prof Seymour's pioneering techniques.

Article continues
One of the country's leading geneticists, Prof Seymour has been working with viruses that kill cancer cells directly, while avoiding harm to healthy tissue. "In principle, you've got something which could be many times more effective than regular chemotherapy," he said.

Cancer-killing viruses exploit the fact that cancer cells suppress the body's local immune system. "If a cancer doesn't do that, the immune system wipes it out. If you can get a virus into a tumour, viruses find them a very good place to be because there's no immune system to stop them replicating. You can regard it as the cancer's Achilles' heel."

Only a small amount of the virus needs to get to the cancer. "They replicate, you get a million copies in each cell and the cell bursts and they infect the tumour cells adjacent and repeat the process," said Prof Seymour.

Preliminary research on mice shows that the viruses work well on tumours resistant to standard cancer drugs. "It's an interesting possibility that they may have an advantage in killing drug-resistant tumours, which could be quite different to anything we've had before."

Researchers have known for some time that viruses can kill tumour cells and some aspects of the work have already been published in scientific journals. American scientists have previously injected viruses directly into tumours but this technique will not work if the cancer is inaccessible or has spread throughout the body.

Prof Seymour's innovative solution is to mask the virus from the body's immune system, effectively allowing the viruses to do what chemotherapy drugs do - spread through the blood and reach tumours wherever they are. The big hurdle has always been to find a way to deliver viruses to tumours via the bloodstream without the body's immune system destroying them on the way.

"What we've done is make chemical modifications to the virus to put a polymer coat around it - it's a stealth virus when you inject it," he said.

After the stealth virus infects the tumour, it replicates, but the copies do not have the chemical modifications. If they escape from the tumour, the copies will be quickly recognised and mopped up by the body's immune system.

The therapy would be especially useful for secondary cancers, called metastases, which sometimes spread around the body after the first tumour appears. "There's an awful statistic of patients in the west ... with malignant cancers; 75% of them go on to die from metastases," said Prof Seymour.

Two viruses are likely to be examined in the first clinical trials: adenovirus, which normally causes a cold-like illness, and vaccinia, which causes cowpox and is also used in the vaccine against smallpox. For safety reasons, both will be disabled to make them less pathogenic in the trial, but Prof Seymour said he eventually hopes to use natural viruses.

The first trials will use uncoated adenovirus and vaccinia and will be delivered locally to liver tumours, in order to establish whether the treatment is safe in humans and what dose of virus will be needed. Several more years of trials will be needed, eventually also on the polymer-coated viruses, before the therapy can be considered for use in the NHS. Though the approach will be examined at first for cancers that do not respond to conventional treatments, Prof Seymour hopes that one day it might be applied to all cancers.

Richard Sullivan, Cancer Research UK's director of clinical programmes, said: "We are pleased to be supporting this new and important research. Whilst this approach is still at an early stage of development it has exciting potential, particularly for the treatment of cancer which has spread, a notoriously difficult stage of the disease to treat."


Luddites and moralists

From time to time, the stem cells wars flare up. The US famously doesn't allow public money to be spent on this research (mostly because of George Bush's ideological objections) but I thought the UK was a always a bit more sensible. Well, not any more. The government wants to ban the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos as a source of stem cells in its new white paper on fertility legislation. Why? Because the public says so, apparently.

It's pig-headed ignorance from the government and, if their attempts to ban the work are successful, what a horrible mistake it will be. (An interesting addendum to all this - a new source of stem cells from amniotic fluid.)

A ban on the use of hybrid embryos will be the consequence of ill conceived pressure

Thursday January 11, 2007
The Guardian

The honeymoon for British stem cell scientists is coming to an end. What began as a model partnership between researchers and the government in how to navigate a controversial area is at risk of disintegrating into a messy divorce, a split fuelled by misconceptions, a Luddite fear of technology and more than a whiff of inappropriate political pressure.

Two research teams in London find out today whether they will be allowed to create animal-human hybrid embryos as part of their work. Informally, they have already been told by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) that their application is unlikely to succeed, despite it being allowed under current regulations. Last week several scientists got together to express deep concerns about the impending decision and delivered a stark message: banning the creation of hybrids will stifle development of treatments for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's.

In the US, where public funding of stem cell research has been curtailed by George Bush's ideological objections, such a move might not have caused much of a storm. But in the UK it is unprecedented. The HFEA's ethical stance on fertility and stem cell research is well respected and its decisions have always taken into account the latest scientific thinking.

The scientists' argument is one of necessity - to make any headway in stem cell work, researchers need raw materials. This means as many stem cells as they can lay their hands on and, typically, these come from the fertilised embryos left over from IVF treatments that are donated for research. But this resource is very small and animal eggs are much easier to come by.

In making the hybrid, the animal egg is hollowed of all genetic information and replaced with the nucleus of a human cell. The resulting cell is then induced to divide and eventually becomes an early-stage embryo. Genetically, the hybrid is 99.5% human and the embryo is terminated before it reaches 14 days' old, at which time it is a ball of cells no bigger than a pinhead. The stem cells exist inside this early-stage embryo, ready to be extracted for research.

But when public health minister Caroline Flint unveiled the white paper on fertility research last month, the clause on animal-human hybrid embryos flew in the face of all of the scientific advice, proposing that it should not be allowed. Flint cited a preceding consultation as justification for the government's reversal of support. But the extent to which these sorts of consultations can be hijacked by pressure groups is well known.

There are also inadvertent victims in this sudden government hostility. Last year, scientists created a model of Down's syndrome by fusing human cells with embryonic stem cells from mice. The resulting animals were hailed as a crucial tool in the study of a condition that affects 60,000 people in the UK alone. Were the government to get its way, the Down's mouse would fall foul of the new legislation.

If the HFEA confirms today that it will not allow scientists to create hybrids, the spotlight will shift to the authority. Why does an independent scientific agency feel the need to prevent hybrid research? Indeed, why is it going against its own advice on the issue?

The only conceivable explanation is that the HFEA is feeling undue political pressure from its host department. The Department of Health seems to have made its decision based on a misconception about public unease over hybrid research. It is difficult not to conclude that the HFEA is worried that funds will be cut off if it doesn't fall into line.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

Rocket man

An interview with space doctor Kevin Fong. If we need someone to save the world from an asteroid hurtling towards us, he'll be the (British) man.

Kevin has been instrumental in coralling the UK's scientists and lobbying government to fund a British astronaut programme. I've talked about this before but Kevin is the man with the plan. Fortunately, it looks like the British government might be taking its head out of the sand on the issue for the first time in half a century.

The education argument is particularly strong. As Kevin says, if you rocked up to government with a cast iron plan that would reverse the decline in science in schools and univeristies, and for a cost of just £100m, they'd normally be falling over themselves to find ways to fund it. Forget silly education schemes and finding ways to make science wacky so that kids might find it interesting. Just send someone into space. Easy.

Kevin Fong has wanted to be an astronaut since he saw a US-Soviet mission on TV in 1975. Now, he tells Alok Jha, there are signs his campaign to put Brits in space could take off

Saturday January 6, 2007
The Guardian

Kevin Fong's earliest memory is of waking up in the middle of the night and sitting in front of a flickering television screen. The pictures he saw were coming live from hundreds of miles above the Earth - an American Apollo module had docked with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft - and, through the grainy black and white images, he could just make out flags floating between the two spacecraft.

It was 1975 and, in a slight thaw in the cold war, the superpowers had collaborated in space for the first time. He might not have understood the significance of the pictures he saw, but the spacemen made a strong impression on the five-year-old. "Hand on heart, that is what drove the entirety of my interest in science, all the way up to doing astrophysics at university," Fong says.

More than 20 years after seeing those floating flags he was floating too, inside a plane used by Nasa to give astronauts a taste of zero gravity. The vomit comet, as the Boeing 707 is affectionately known, flies as if it is a 10,000ft-high rollercoaster ride. After reaching a height of 25,000ft, the pilot throttles to full power for a 20-second, 45-degree climb up to 35,000ft, after which the engines are abruptly switched off and the plane begins to free-fall back to Earth. For the next 20 seconds, gravity inside the cabin seems to disappear.

He has told that story countless times, but even a decade later and sitting on terra firma in a cold office in University College Hospital in London, where he works as an anaesthetist, Fong finds it difficult to come up with the words to describe the sensation the time he felt gravity disappear. "All those dreams you have of flying, and you wake up disappointed that it's not true, suddenly they're real."

Those flights helped convince him he had found his calling. He was determined do the training for real and become an astronaut. There was only one problem: he was British.

The British government doesn't do astronauts - a position crafted in the 1960s with the cancellation of rocket programmes such as Blue Streak and honed by successive governments claiming sending people into space is too expensive. Helen Sharman, technically the only Briton who has been in space, flew as part of the privately funded Juno mission. The remaining three British-born astronauts - Michael Foale, Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick - all became American citizens before joining Nasa's astronaut corps and flying in the space shuttle.

But the British resolve could be weakening. Next week, the British National Space Centre, the closest thing the UK has to a space agency, will detail plans for a review of space policy. And only two months into his new job as science minister, Malcolm Wicks hinted this week at a possible reversal in the policy not to fund an astronaut programme.

The steps might not sound like much but, for a community of scientists that has seen little movement in more than 50 years, the events of the last few weeks have had the effect of an earthquake. "This is our best and only chance - if we kill it here, we'll never do it," says Fong.

There are other stars in alignment. The Commons science and technology committee plans a policy review and early indications are that human spaceflight will play a big part in discussions. And last year, a report by independent scientists commissioned by the Royal Astronomical Society concluded there was a good case for sending people into space.

Fong was in his final year at medical school (he already had a degree in astrophysics) when he landed a month placement at Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston. He was awestruck. "You walk through the gates there and it's like Disney World for adults. We used to sit around in the evenings around pizza boxes saying, what a tragedy it would be if we walked out of here in a month's time and never came back."

His brief trip to Nasa got him so fired up that, when it was finishing, he called the BNSC to find out what Britain had to offer budding astronauts. "At the time there was nothing in this country," he remembers. "To realise that you genuinely can't do these things even if you're as good as you can be at your field is a bit upsetting. The temptation to shift country is massive." He faced a tough choice: admit defeat or give up his British passport and emigrate to the US.

Never one prone to settle for the most sensible option, Fong decided on a different strategy - to stay at home and think how to get Britain into space. Canvassing scientists, he began the task of building up a case for a new British space programme.

Thus began a one-man mission for the creation of a human spaceflight programme. He ran and advised numerous scientific committees and wrote papers and articles pushing the case for space. He even set up a space medicine course, the first of its kind in the UK, for undergraduate medics at University College London. And most of it happened during snatched moments between gruelling shifts as a trainee hospital doctor.

He found a like mind in Ian Crawford, director of the UCL-Birkbeck Centre for Planetary Science and Astrobiology. Together, they began fleshing out what a UK programme might look like.

Cost had always been cited as a big stumbling block. Launch costs shoot up when people are involved - Nasa's human spaceflight missions suck $6bn every year from the federal budget. Joining the European Space Agency's (Esa) proposed Aurora programme, which includes plans to send people to the moon and Mars, would come with an annual price tag of £150m for Britain.

Fong has an alternative. "The big thing that I've pushed over the years is to get away from the idea that, to get a British space programme with British astronauts, you need to rock up to one agency or another with a couple of briefcases with hundreds of millions of pounds. We need to do something strategic and at lower cost to evaluate the relative costs and benefits."

He says bilateral agreement with a foreign space agency to train and fly two British astronauts over the next 10 years is a better idea. At an estimated cost of £100m, it would cost a fraction of a full Nasa or Esa subscription.

Many of the UK's space scientists already benefit from agreements to share the results from Nasa exploration satellites, for instance, in return for instruments or technical help. Nasa's administrator, Mike Griffin, visited the UK last year and, in meetings with government officials, all but extended an invitation for Britain to join plans to explore the moon and Mars. It was a remarkable gesture, given Nasa rarely asks for help from other countries.

Fong's ideas go beyond basic science. A UK astronaut could become an important role model for children, he argues, helping to reverse the terminal decline in science at schools and universities.

After Yang Lee Wei became China's first astronaut in 2004, Fong was invited to give a lecture on why countries should send people into space at the Beijing School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The audience sat rapt, despite waiting for a line-by-line translation. "You got a sense that there was a feverish desire to embrace science and engineering by these kids because they wanted to be the next Yang Lee Wei. Russia have had that with Yuri Gagarin, America had that in the Apollo era. The UK has never used that chip."

In an ironic twist to Fong's decade-long campaign, he is due to leave the country just as his cause finally gains momentum in Britain. He will spend the next six months in Houston, working out with Nasa scientists the effects on humans of long-term space exploration, part of a research programme looking at ways of creating artificial gravity on long trips to Mars.

He has an ulterior motive - to sound out Nasa on how Britain could best plug into their astronaut programme. His goal is to deliver a detailed blueprint for a practical British space programme by the end of the year. "If someone gave you £100m tomorrow, how would you interface two British astronauts with the programmes that exist? What science would they do? How would they be trained? I would like to deliver a blueprint for how we could do it."

That blueprint will be Fong's testament to a desire ignited when he first saw those floating flags more than 30 years ago, a desire that still burns brightly today. "If we had an astronaut programme in this country, I would be the first to put my hand up for it. I've spent my entire career pushing this - it's something I would love to see and, if it was me, I would have to pinch myself every day. How many people can say, when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut and then actually be an astronaut?"


The government cut off any chance of sending Britons into space in the decade Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong escaped the Earth's atmosphere. Blue Streak, a rocket programme that would have been a precursor to giving Britain its own launch capability, was cancelled in the 1960s. UK scientists did get involved indirectly in the US Apollo missions but there was no chance a Briton would fly to the moon.

Since the 1960s, British space scientists have worked with Nasa and with the European Space Agency on robotic exploration missions. Britain now has a healthy satellite-building industry.

In 1991, Helen Sharman became the first Briton in space through the Juno programme, funded by the Russian space agency and a consortium of British companies.

In 2002, the government set up the microgravity review panel to consider starting research in space but made no mention of an astronaut programme. Two years later, a Royal Astronomical Society report put the scientific case for funding British astronauts.

UK-born Michael Foale first flew on the space shuttle in 1993. To fly with Nasa, he had to obtain US citizenship, as did Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick, for flights this year.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Imagine a world with no religion...

The end of religion is nigh: as television and internet make it easier for people around the world to get information and scientists get closer to discovering a final theory of everything, leading thinkers have argued that, within a few decades, people's fascination for superstition and religion will disappear.

The argument is part of the responses to an exercise by the web magazine, Edge, which asked more than 150 scientists and thinkers: "What are you optimistic about?" The responses included predictions of extended human lifespan, hope for a bright future for autistic children in the digital age, and a potential end to violent conflicts around the world. (The full list of responses is here).

Philosopher Daniel Dennett led the charge against religion with his argument that, within 25 years, religion will evolve into something that commands little of the awe it seems to instil in people today. "Of course many people, perhaps a majority of people in the world, will still cling to their religion with the sort of passion that can fuel violence and other intolerant and reprehensible behaviour. But the rest of the world will see this behaviour for what it is, and learn to work around it until it subsides, as it surely will."

He cited the worldwide spread of information through the internet, mobile phones and portable radios and television as a problem for guardians of religious traditions. These will "gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance."

Biologist Richard Dawkins added that physicists would give religion another problem: a theory of everything that would complete Albert Einstein's dream to unify the fundamental laws of physics. "This final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions."

Part of that final theory will be formulated by scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a $8bn particle accelerator at Cern in Geneva that will be switched on in 2007. It will smash protons together in a bid to understand what makes up the most fundamental bits of the universe.

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University said that the LHC will end the years of "sensory deprivation in the field of particle physics, during which much hallucination (eg. string theory) has occurred by theorists. We will finally obtain empirical data that will drive forward our understanding of the fundamental structure of nature, its forces, and of space and time."

His biggest hope is that the LHC will give unexpected data, forcing scientists to reformulate their basic ideas.

Meanwhile, Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University said that an optimistic trend had gone unnoticed in society: the decline of violence.

"Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the twentieth century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward"

In his book, War before Civilisation, anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimated that, in the 20th century 100 million men, women, and children died from war-related causes, including disease and famine. If the rate of violence had been as high as the average primitive society, that total would have been 2 billion.

Prof Pinker said that, compared with centuries past, modern violent acts are generally hidden, illegal, condemned or controversial. "In the past, they were no big deal. My optimism lies in the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, that is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate, and that we can identify those forces and perhaps concentrate and bottle them."

In his reponse to the Edge question, John Horgan of the Stevens Institute of Technology underlined Prof Pinker's point: "I'm optimistic that one day war-large-scale, organized, group violence-will end once and for all," he said.

Developing a better understanding of other people to prevent war could take some time. Understanding yourself, however, will come much more quickly, according to George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School. Genetic sequencing technology is getting cheaper and will soon be within the reach of individuals. He said that 2007 would be the year that people finally get to grips with their personal genomes.

"We will learn so much more about ourselves and how we interact with our environment and our fellow humans. We will be able to connect with other people who share our traits. I am optimistic that we will not be de-humanized, but we might be re-humanized, relieved of a few more ailments, to contemplate our place in the universe, and transcend out brutal past."

Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist at Cambridge University, focused his optimism on the lives of the rising numbers of autistic children. In 1978, the rate of autism was four in 10,000 children but today the figure is closer to one in 100. He said that, while no-one is certain why this increase is happening, many scientists put it down to a combination of environmental reasons and a better recognition of the condition. Prof Baron-Cohen argued that the outlook for autistic children was far from bleak. Indeed, there has never been a better time for them.

"There is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age. Computers operate on the basis of extreme precision, and so does the autistic mind," he said. "The inherently ambiguous and unpredictable world of people and emotions is a turn off for someone with autism, but a rapid series of clicks of the mouse that leads to the same result every time that sequence is performed is reassuringly attractive. Many children with autism develop an intuitive understanding of computers in the same way that other children develop an intuitive understanding of people."

Leo Chalupa, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Davis predicted that, by the middle of the this century, "it will not be uncommon for people to lead healthy and productive lives well past their tenth decade. This means that the high school kids of today who believe they will be forever young might well have their fantasy fulfilled, albeit in modified form."

He cited the advances in medical research that can manipulate cells to prolong longevity, in particular brain cells.

"We will be able to regenerate parts of the brain that have been worn out or damaged during the course of a lifetime, providing renewed capabilities to what are currently considered old folks," he said. "So better start thinking what you'll be doing with all those extra years of life."

Other respondents include Martin Rees, Jared Diamond, Susan Blackmore, Ray Kurzweil and Marvin Minsky.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Science stories of 2006

It's been a year of little leaps. Nothing Earth-shattering or, at least, nothing the world has noticed yet. Someone once remarked to me that the most important scientific result of the year just gone wouldn't be recognised until several years later, when its implications were much clearer. For what it's worth, here's what James and I thought were the most interesting and noteworthy science stories of 2006. Perhaps the low-key year is an unconscious repsonse to the Hwang scandal - the Korean scientist faked research and papers on cloning and was discovered at the end of last year.

It was also a year of warnings: a worsening biodiversity crisis, the Arctic ice cap predicted to be ice-free in summer by 2040 and UK chief scientific adviser David King making his starkest predictions yet on the effects of climate change. One piece of good news (possibly) on the last front: with British economist Nicholas Stern's report on the potential cost of climate change, will 2006 go down as the year the world work up to the problem?

It wasn't entirely quiet on the discovery front: the spectacular Stardust mission to bring comet dust back to earth; the Tiktaalik fossil (pictured) that gave biologists clues on how animals made it from water to land; and flowing water on Mars. Here's to more brilliance in 2007...

Fish out of water, polar ice, and leakage on Mars


A crocodile-like fossil called Tiktaalik roseae, found on Ellesmere Island, Canada, sent scientists wild with excitement. A missing link between fish and land animals, it showed how creatures first walked out of the water and on to dry land more than 375m years ago. Tiktaalik - the name means "a large, shallow-water fish" in the Inuit language - lived in the Devonian era lasting from 417m to 354m years ago, and had a skull, neck, and ribs similar to early limbed animals, known as tetrapods, as well as a more primitive jaw, fins, and scales akin to fish. It showed that the evolution of animals from living in water to living on land happened gradually, with fish first living in shallow water.

Arctic ice

Sir David King, the UK's chief scientific advisor, warned that, unless governments around the world took urgent action against climate change, global temperatures would rise by 3C, resulting in global famine and drought and threatening millions of lives. Cereal crop production could drop by between 20m and 400m tonnes, 400 million more people would be at risk of hunger, and 3 billion would be at extra risk of flooding and without access to freshwater supplies. This year, scientists calculated the Antarctic ice sheet is losing 36 cubic miles of ice every year. They also made the startling prediction that the Arctic ice cap will lose all of its summer sea ice by 2040, given the accelerating rate of melting observed in recent years.

Cellardyke swan

The dreaded avian flu, H5N1, turned up in a dead swan in Cellardyke, Fife. The virus seemed to remain confined to wild birds, however, and the potentially deadly flu caused no human casualties in the UK. It does not mark the end of H5N1, however. Scientists predict it will be back in the coming months and begin to spread around the world again as birds begin migration. For it to become deadly to humans, H5N1 needs to mutate so that it can transfer easily between people. So far this has not happened.


Nasa's adventurous Stardust mission brought the dust of a comet back to Earth. The mission was full of firsts: the first time a probe had been flown so close to a comet; the first extraterrestrial use of the advanced aerogel material - a hi-tech mousse made of glass and air sometimes called "frozen smoke" - to trap the grains of dust; and the first successful sample return to Earth since the moon landings. The first results were published in December and showed that scientists would have to rewrite the textbooks on comet formation. Not only are these objects more than simply dirty snowballs, as had been previously thought, scientists found materials in them that suggest they could have kickstarted life on Earth.


The underdog planet, smaller than the moon, was kicked out of the planetary club by the International Astronomical Union. The 2,500 scientists of the union decided on a definition of a planet as a body that orbits the sun, is so large that its own gravity makes it roughly spherical, and, crucially, also dominates its region of the solar system. Their decision will force a rewrite of science textbooks because the solar system is now a place with eight planets and three newly defined "dwarf planets" - a new category of object that includes Pluto. The category also includes an asteroid called Ceres and an object bigger than Pluto, initially called 2003 UB313 but later named officially as Eris.

Messing about in space

2006 was the year for doing weird, risky and just plain daft things in space. In February, an old Russian space suit filled with clothes was shoved out of the International Space Station. This was the cosmic equivalent of taking out the rubbish and the zero-G Guy Fawkes eventually burned up in the atmosphere as planned. In July, a Las Vegas property magnate called Robert Bigelow launched an experimental inflatable space hotel. The unconventional inn in the sky was crewed by cockroaches and Mexican jumping bean moths. In November, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin hit the longest golf shot in history from the ISS. A Canadian golf manufacturer paid for the stunt.

Water on Mars

The universe may not be such a lonely place after all. Earlier this month, Nasa scientists revealed the first evidence for flowing water on Mars. By comparing images taken by the now defunct Mars Global Surveyor satellite in 2001 and 2005 they saw tell-tale grooves cut by water bursting out of a crater wall and flowing between boulders. Researchers had previously found evidence that ancient lakes once dotted the Martian surface and vast quantities of water are locked up as ice at the planet's frosty poles. The flowing water would have quickly boiled and evaporated despite temperatures ranging from -8C and -100C because of the extremely low pressure. But the fact that it was there ups the odds for life on the red planet.

Extinction fears

In July, scientists warned extinctions are happening at 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate in geological history. Nearly a quarter of mammals, a third of amphibians and more than a tenth of bird species are threatened. Climate change is expected to force a further 15% to 37% of species over the edge. In November we learned that the current rate of extraction from the seas is predicted to cause the collapse of all the world's fish and shellfish stocks by 2048. Another study suggested that tigers would become extinct in just two decades.

Mature mums

The bounds of reproductive medicine were pushed a little further in July when a child psychiatrist became the oldest woman in Britain to have a baby. Patricia Rashbrook, 63, had the boy by caesarean section after receiving fertility treatment in eastern Europe. The birth provoked criticism from groups who said that her age would mean she was not physically able to bring him up.

Neanderthal refuge

Neanderthals may have clung on in Europe until as recently as 24,000 years ago - 11,000 years later than scientists had thought. A cave that was perhaps their last European refuge was revealed in a study published in September. Gorham's cave in Gibraltar was home to 15 neanderthals.