The past year in science has been nothing short of tumultuous, with COVID-19 completely halting some scientific endeavors and accelerating others. Regardless, the year will be remembered for a variety of advancements — from space discoveries to vaccine development. And if this year has proven anything, it’s that it's going to be difficult to predict anything for 2021.
First, let's recap some highlights from 2020:
One of the largest scientific feats this year was the rapid development of a vaccine for COVID-19. The research on the virus itself will go down as one of the most collaborative biomedical efforts performed to date, some of which was spearheaded right here on UNC’s campus. The vaccines currently in the news mark the first clinical uses of an mRNA vaccine, which utilizes the understanding of the virus's structure to push the human body to produce protective antibodies against the virus.
While vaccines like these have been in development for over a decade, only 12 mRNA vaccines have ever made it to human trials, and none were approved. However, given the speed of its development, it has been pushed to emergency use for COVID-19 by Moderna and Pfizer, at shocking rates of over 90 percent efficiency — proving a huge win for drug development and strong implications for its use in the future.
Improvement of artificial intelligence
Google DeepMind has been in the news twice this year for immense breakthroughs in health and biology. Earlier this year, it was evaluated as a tool to spot cases of breast cancer, and the system was trained on over 30,000 mammography images in the U.S. and the U.K.
DeepMind was able to cut the number of people incorrectly referred for further screening by 5.7 percent, while detecting 9.4 percent of potentially missed breast cancer cases. Although its success will need to be confirmed in clinical trials, it’s a significant advancement for the integration of technology into health care.
And only a few weeks ago, DeepMind’s program, known as AlphaFold, made a huge leap in solving a problem scientists have grappled with for decades: determining a protein’s 3D shape from its amino acid sequence. Understanding the shape of proteins can help pharmaceutical companies better understand viruses and the immune response, and has strong implications for quicker and advanced drug discovery.
Space exploration has always been one of the more intriguing aspects of science, and this year was nothing short of exciting. In September, evidence emerged of three buried lakes on Mars from radar data collected by the orbiting spacecraft known as Mars Express. The prospect of these lakes suggests that Mars may have had a water source in the past, giving rise to the possibility of life.
The research on Mars continued this year with the Perseverance rover, which was launched in late July. Its primary mission is to seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for its possible return to Earth.
In additional space news, phosphine — a toxic compound of hydrogen and phosphorus — was flagged in Venus’ atmosphere. Phosphine is considered a possible signature for life as it is made by some organisms on Earth. Researchers have suggested that the atmospheric region, away from the high pressure and temperature of the planet’s surface, could support the life of some airborne microbes.
And now, here's what we can look forward to in 2021:
Advancements in public health
With several pharmaceutical companies filing for vaccine emergency use, the work of public health officials now comes into play. Decisions involving who gets the vaccine and the distribution across countries, as well as the development of public health measures to continue virus containment, are all things to keep an eye on as governments aim to integrate the advice of public health experts into their respective pandemic responses.
Technology in medicine
Google DeepMind’s use in diagnosing breast cancer was just the beginning. Along with the development of AI in diagnoses of various conditions and the advancement of gene editing through techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, we will hopefully see accelerated development of forms of treatment known as “precision medicine," in which drugs can be customized to the genetic profile of individual patients, making them more effective.
Access to research and data sharing
The importance of data sharing was emphasized this year as researchers shared experiment results and the public awaited data reports from the dozens of vaccine trials for COVID-19. With the amount of data only increasing in the upcoming years, changes will be made in development of databases to share all kinds of datasets — from mammogram training pictures to efficiency data for new vaccines. The sharing of these types of results will not only be used for validation of findings, but also in further research, propelling the advancement of science in nearly every division of academia.
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