Several research groups, including a team led by geneticist Erika Sasaki and stem-cell biologist Hideyuki Okano at Keio University in Tokyo, hope to create transgenic primates with immune-system deficiencies or brain disorders. This could raise ethical concerns, but might bring us closer to therapies that are relevant to humans (mice can be poor models for such disorders). The work will probably make use of a gene-editing method called CRISPR, which saw rapid take-up last year.
Neural feats – brain controlled exoskeletons and reconnecting the paralyzed to their paralyzed areas
Neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has developed a brain-controlled exoskeleton that he expects will enable a person with a spinal-cord injury to kick the first ball at the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil. Meanwhile, attempts are being made in people with paralysis to reconnect their brains directly to paralysed areas, rather than to robotic arms or exoskeletons. In basic research, neuroscientists are excited about money from big US and European brain initiatives, such as Europe’s Human Brain Project.
A Japanese team will start the first clinical trials using induced pluripotent stem cells this year — but don’t expect results anytime soon. And biotechnology firm Advanced Cell Technology in Santa Monica, California, says that it will release data from two trials using human embryonic stem cells — the only two to gain approval from US drug regulators. These two studies involve injecting stem-cell-derived retinal cells into the eyes of around 30 people with one of two forms of non-treatable degenerative blindness.
Novel drugs against cancer
In the pharmaceutical industry, all eyes are on trial results from two competing antibody treatments that harness patients’ immune systems to fight cancer. The drugs, nivolumab and lambrolizumab, work by blocking proteins that prevent a person’s T cells from attacking tumours. In early tests, the drugs evoked a better level of response in patients than ipilimumab, a similar therapy that was launched in 2011 to treat advanced melanoma.
Cheaper materials for solar will match silicon conversion efficiency
Semiconductors known as perovskites convert light energy into electricity. They are cheap to build and have already shown conversion rates of more than 15% (a leap from 4% when the feat was first reported in 2009). Expect to see still-higher efficiencies this year, perhaps reaching 20% — the same as the lower end of existing commercial silicon-based photo-voltaics. A team at the University of Oxford, UK, also hopes to make lead-free perovskites.
Nanopore DNA sequencer will be commercially available
Technology that rapidly sequences DNA as it is fed through a ring of proteins, known as a biological nanopore, will hit the market this year after decades of development. Oxford Nano-pore Technologies in Oxford, UK, aims to release the first data from a disposable sequencer the size of a memory stick, which it is sending to scientists for testing. It promises to read longer strands of DNA than other techniques (potentially useful in sequencing mixed samples of bacterial DNA, for example), and to show results in real time.