What’s Next: Predicting the Top Scientific Breakthroughs of 2018

Science made headlines constantly in 2017, from the first report of a genetically modified human embryo to vast improvements in machine learning, as when Google’s AlphaZero beat a chess champion after learning the game in only four hours. Despite a successful year, 2018 is poised to be even bigger.

8) Custom Yeast Will Transform the Brewing Industry

Humans have exploited yeast to produce fermented beverages for thousands of years, with beer dating back to at least the 5th century BCE. Today, a revolution in fermentation is under way. With advancements in genetic engineering, the metabolism of yeast, the organism responsible for fermenting sugars to produce alcohol, is being rewired to produce tastier beverages. Different strains of yeast are being engineered to produce molecules that add flavour to beer during the fermentation process, including molecules that taste like smoke, cloves or oranges. Some of these flavourful new brews are set to hit the shelves in 2018.

7) Artificial Intelligence Will Take Root in the Clinic

Artificial intelligence, or AI, has already proven itself in diagnosing cancer with high accuracy. Fortune magazine reported in 2017 that AI systems could detect colorectal cancer earlier than physicians with 86% accuracy. But with hospitals being notoriously slow to adopt digital technologies (Vox reported that hospitals using electronic medical records went from 9% in 2008 to 83% in 2015, for instance), adoption of AI seems unlikely. The vast improvements made to AI recently are hard to ignore, however, and their introduction to the clinic is being backed by big companies, including Google, IBM and Zephyr Health, which could pave the way for limited adoption in the clinic in 2018.

6) ‘Green’ Silk Ramps Up Production

According to TradeForum, silk captures less than 0.2% of the global textile fibre market. This miniscule number is in large part due to the complexities associated with its manufacturing. Bombyx mori silkworms are raised in captivity and their cocoons are spun with a long, continuous strand of silk. To harvest the silk, the pupa inside is killed and the silk harvested. In 2016, a company in San Francisco called Bolt Threads raised $50 million in Series C funding to scale up their production of a sustainable silk, which is produced from genomically engineered yeast. In 2018, the company is set to ramp up production and make silk a viable, economical commodity for the fashion and textile industries.

5) Solar Cell Technologies Will Soar

SolarCity, the renewable energy company chaired by Elon Musk, is currently mass-producing solar panels that have a 22% energy conversion efficiency. 2017 saw a breakthrough in solar cell technologies, with researchers from Kobe University, Japan, reporting the creation of a solar cell with an energy conversion efficiency of over 50%. This technology could be implemented in solar cell manufacturing processes in 2018, facilitating the mass adoption of solar as a renewable energy source.

4) Programmable Cancer Therapies Gain Traction

In December 2017, Cell Design Labs, a spin-out company from UC San Francisco, USA, was sold to Gilead for up to $567 million (£408 million). Cell Design Labs was working on a new type of cancer therapy known as CAR T-cell therapy, a process in which T-cells are removed from a patient, genetically engineered to produce chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) on their surface and then reintroduced into the patient. These engineered T-cells then act as a smart therapeutic, hunting down specific types of cancer cells and targeting them for destruction by the immune system. The US Food & Drug Administration has already approved two different types of these CAR T-cell therapies, which will be used increasingly in the clinic in 2018 for certain types of cancer.

3) CRISPR Human Trials Set to Start in 2018

The CRISPR–Cas9 system was first used to edit the genome of a eukaryotic cell in 2013, making waves in the scientific community because of its ease of use and genetic specificity. In 2017, CRISPR–Cas9 again made headlines when an international team of scientists reported that they had successfully modified the genome of a human embryo. CRISPR–Cas9 will have another big year in 2018, with clinical trials slated to begin in the US and Europe. These clinical trials are not as dystopian as you might think — only a small number of people will be admitted. CRISPR Therapeutics, a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, will use the technology to correct a mutation that causes a condition known as beta thalassemia, a rare type of blood disorder.

2) InSight Probe to Harvest Data on Mars

NASA is set to launch their InSight Probe on 5 May, with a Mars landing in late November. This will be “the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars”, according to a NASA press release. The mission is a collaboration between NASA and France’s space agency, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales. The InSight rover is equipped with advanced equipment, which will be used to survey the geology of Mars, detect processes involved in terrestrial planet formation and read planet temperature, all in an effort to understand how Mars, and our own planet, may have formed.

1) Personalised Medicine Will be Revolutionised by 100,000 Sequenced Genomes

In December 2012, then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced the 100,000 Genomes Project, an initiative to sequence the whole genome of 100,000 NHS patients and uncover the genetic basis behind rare diseases, cancers and infectious diseases. Data from the genomes, which is openly shared with researchers, will inform both fundamental scientific research and the development of new therapeutics for diseases with a predominantly genetic basis. Sir John Chisholm, Executive Chairman of Genomics England, the company overseeing the initiative, has predicted that the project will be completed by the end of 2018. From this initiative, personalised medicine based on genomic information will expand into medical clinics around the world.

Nicholas McCarty is studying for an MRes Systems and Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London

Banner image: Crystal Ball, George Hodan / Publicdomainpictures

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