June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

digital illustration of two scientists in a lab

digital illustration of two scientists in a lab | Courtesy of Elf-Moondance via Pixabay | Edited from the original

2021: The scientific progress which prevailed in the face of COVID-19

By Aaron Khemchandani
4th February 2022

I don’t know about you, but science was all over my news feed last year, (a lot of it was COVID-19 related). In fact, it may have seemed like all the major science news stories of the past year were centered on the pandemic. However, that is far from the truth! 2021 saw several hugely important breakthroughs as well as conclusions to a wide range of projects spanning all branches of science. Read on to recap a few of the most important non-COVID-related scientific news stories of the past year…

The James Webb Space Telescope

I wanted to start with space. It is the bar on our keyboards, the home of our solar system, and what my girlfriend wanted from me, when I asked her if, since tomatoes are fruits, ketchup is technically a fruit smoothie – but that is not the point. 2021 saw the long-awaited launch of the James Webb space telescope from French Guiana. Named after the second-ever administrator of NASA, the James Webb is a hexagonal behemoth of an optical tool that, because of its infra-red technology and high sensitivity, will allow us to identify a swath of objects in the outermost regions of our solar system and beyond. The telescope may even allow us to capture detailed information about new exoplanets and, given current greenhouse gas levels, we’re going to need that information sooner rather than later. Essentially, the incredible design of the James Webb has created an endless array of possibilities for space exploration and has the potential to revolutionise the way we see ourselves within the great cosmic unknown. That’s why this launch is a landmark moment in the history of astronomy, and the event is sure to be talked about for years to come. 

The Malaria Vaccine

The development of a malaria vaccine was a historic achievement for science and has the potential to save hundreds of millions of lives. Malaria, like ITV’s Love Island, has plagued the human race for what feels like millennia. It is one of the world’s most deadly diseases, particularly for young children, and caused over 600,000 deaths in 2020. The disease primarily spreads through blood-sucking mosquitos which is why, prior to the vaccine, most malaria prevention methods included bed-nets and insecticides. When the World Health Organisation finally approved the first-ever vaccination against malaria, it was a rare moment of inspiration in the fight against this deadly infection. The vaccine, named RTS,S, was first proven effective in 2014. It underwent pilot programmes in Malawi, Kenya and Ghana and has now been recommended for use across the African continent, where 94% of cases occur. RTS,S is the first preventative measure which will help build up immunity, and it is a huge step forward in battling this vicious disease. 

A Revolutionary Heart

More than 130,000 people in the UK die from heart and circulatory diseases every year, with over 60,000 new cases of heart failure occurring annually. Medication is available, although this can only provide aid for a certain period and in most cases, a heart transplant is necessary. However, replacement organs are hard to come by and there is an incredibly long waiting list. For decades, scientists have been trying to develop artificial hearts to combat this, but so far have enjoyed little success – until now. 

BiVACOR, the brainchild of Dr. Daniel Timms, is an artificial heart which could revolutionise the treatment of heart failure. The product does not attempt to replicate the method of pumping used by the human heart, as previous models have done. Rather, this titanium design relies on a single rotating disc enshrouded in a magnetic field to pump blood around the body. Whilst previous models failed once implanted, due to mechanical wear, BiVACOR’s spinning disc levitates between magnets which prevent the device wearing out. In addition, this model can adapt its output to the demands of the patient, ensuring that it is able to increase output during exercise. The fact that this design operates in a completely different way to a normal heart means that Timms has, in effect, tried to one-up evolution! Given that the product has shown early promise and BiVACOR Inc. secured over £16 million in funding for human trials, Timms may just succeed and, in doing so, could save millions of lives worldwide (including mine. Suzie knows what she’s done.)

So, whilst science headlines last year were dominated by COVID-19, there were still some amazing developments which would surely have been front-page news in any other year. I have only covered a fraction of non-pandemic stories here, so why not spend some time on the I, Science website and discover more of our exciting science stories?

Aaron Khemchandani is a contributing writer for I, Science, and is currently a student on the Science Communication Masters here at Imperial College London. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science from the University of Warwick, he developed a passion for writing and communicating science through various forms of media. He hopes to continue exploring and communicating this passion to a wide range of audiences in the future.