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2016: Year in Review

We're full speed ahead now leaving 2016 in the dust so why read a review? Because underneath last year's headlines, political waves and tweets you probably missed important news of lifesaving progress in medicine, long awaited discoveries in science and promising advances in technology that will improve our lives in days to come.  Already 2017's politics are snatching headlines from medicine and science. Don't be left out. The landscape of our future, made possible by this century's innovation, got much clearer in 2016 and it's bold and amazing. So, turn off the TV, set down that smart phone and get an edge on this fast moving year by reviewing the trends for tomorrow fresh off last year's press!

 Cubs fans waited 108 years to see their team win the 2016 World Series but you won't have to wait more than a decade to see amazing changes in the way we cure. In 2015: Year in Review I blogged about the first new antibiotic discovered in 30 years. This year it moved into trials. Will it come to market? We don't know but it's discovery means science has overcome barriers to studying 99% of the bacteria that could become powerful antibiotics. "The greatest developments in science are often not the discoveries but the developments that enable them," write authors at Medicalxpress.com. That may be true for many of the profound breakthroughs rapidly maturing in this century.

CRISPR cas-9 technology that enables simple gene-editing set off panic, excitement and controversy last year. This year the patent fight begins. Why? Because CRISPR's unfolding potential is mind boggling---revolutionary. In 2016 it not only sped up research and improved cancer treatment it was enlisted as a diagnostic tool in fighting Zika and introduced in insects to create transgenic species that aren't harmful to man. Someday soon it may help us treat: hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia and HIV/AIDS...could it even lead to living forever? That's what some innovators hope. Sound good to you?

2016 was a year of surprises. Medical students and doctors will agree. "I thought the body was mapped" researcher Jonathan Kipnis of the University of Virginia exclaimed reporting the discovery of lymphatic vessels in the brain and revealing, for the first time, the brain's direct connection with the immune system. "We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role," Kipnis said.  Equally unexpected was the discovery of a new organ in the body. Yes, the "mesentary" has been in our body all along but now detailed imaging shows this continuous lining of the abdominal cavity is an organ unto itself and may play a role in abdominal diseases. So, please, update your medical reference books! "It just goes to show that no matter how advanced science becomes, there's always more to learn and discover, even within our own bodies," concludes Fiona Macdonald at Science Alert.com.

Medical discovery was amazing in 2016 but the "astronomical" shock of the year came from space. Now, almost 100 years after Einstein's Theory of Relativity predicted the existence of ripples in space/time, we have equipment sophisticated enough to detect that phenomenon. "It's like Galileo pointing the telescope for the first time at the sky,"  Vassiliki  Kalogera of Northwestern University, raved. "What's going to come now is we're going to hear more things, and no doubt we'll hear things that we expected to hear … but we will also hear things that we never expected," explained David Reitze, of the California Institute of Technology. Parts of Einstein's Theory already enables the GPS we use today in, for instance, our cell phones, medical tracking devices, and cars. This new understanding may take us "where no man has gone before" and into technological directions unimagined. Most certainly it opens a new window in Astronomy.

 

Technology is in the business of new discovery yet last year's advances were eye-opening. Thanks to collaboration between technology, medicine, and many other areas 2016 may be the year we'll say that America's renewed will led medicine to discoveries that ended cancer.  Former Vice President Biden's Cancer Moonshot initiative appears to be enabling amazing progress already. As the New England Journal of Medicine notes, the Moonshot facilitates two important advances it increases cancer fighting resources and breaks down silos in the cancer fighting community. Immunotherapy, one promising new treatment, is already making differences in lives. While researchers rushed to learn more about cancer Artificial Intelligence (AI) quietly triumphed over the human mind in it's stunning defeat of a world class Go master. The victor, Google's AI machine AlphaGo, uses neural networks (similar to the network our brains use) and off the shelf processors to effectively split its mind in two playing against itself to further improve judgement ie-two heads are better than one. After analyzing AlphaGo, Scientific American concluded, "This further accelerates the frenetic pace of AI research in academic and industrial laboratories worldwide... A new era has begun with unknown but potential monumental medium- and long-term consequences for employment patterns, large-scale surveillance and growing political and economic inequity."

We live in a time of confluence when sudden discoveries enable newly found technology that inspires awe. Though some of us look at the current political climate and see us going backwards be assured that momentum is thrusting us forward. 2016, for instance, saw the birth of "electroceuticals" creating potential for many bold applications including non invasive brain/prosthesis control systems enabled by a tiny implant, developed last year, called "neural dust." In addition, technologies developed in this decade are reaching maturity. 3D printing, for instance, continues revolutionizing medicine allowing doctors to: develop 3-D prostheses, model complex body systems, and print cranium and pelvis repairs. Soon medicine will realize bio printing capability generating organs, tissue, and blood vessels. Last year's development of "shape memory polymers" enables that kind of breakthrough creating materials that can change shape without forgetting their original form.

2016 revealed dramatic progress in the way we cure. It held amazing new discovery and greater understanding of our universe. It was a year of surprise and long awaited rewards. Underneath the headlines of trouble and disagreement each day revealed something new and exciting about tomorrow's promise. May we continue to learn and explore together in 2017.

 Update Feb 2017: From an article at the Future of Life Institute: "In the history of human progress, a few events have stood out as especially revolutionary: the intentional use of fire, the invention of agriculture, the industrial revolution, possibly the invention of computers and the Internet. But many anticipate that the creation of advanced artificial intelligence will tower over these achievements." 

Update April 2017 This article overviews a new system, developed by MIT researchers, that can 3-D print an entire building. From the aritcle: While the platform represents an engineering advance, group director Neri Oxman notes, "Making it faster, better, and cheaper is one thing. But the ability to design and digitally fabricate multifunctional structures in a single build embodies a shift from the machine age to the biological age—from considering the building as a machine to live in, made of standardized parts, to the building as an organism, which is computationally grown, additively manufactured, and possibly biologically augmented."

 

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