I decided to kick off the year with my predictions about what I expect to be the most significant science stories of 2014 – five predictions for positive stories this week and five negative ones next week. Each topic begins with an imaginary headline for the story. I’ll report back in December to let you know how I did.
1. “Kick and Kill” Offers Hope for HIV Eradication
Antiretroviral (ARV) therapies have advanced to the point that, at least in first-world countries, HIV has become a chronic treatable condition rather than a death sentence. When taken regularly, ARV drugs can kill any cell in the body in which the HIV is actively replicating – a necessity for the virus to persist – and allow the victim to live a relatively normal life for decades. Unfortunately, HIV can hide from ARV drugs by lying dormant within certain cells for long periods of time. Therefore , HIV patients must take ARV therapies every day for the rest of their lives to be prepared for the day when the dormant viruses awaken.
Researchers around the globe are testing a novel approach called “Kick and Kill.” Kick and Kill adds a second type of drug to ARV therapy which activates dormant HIV. While it may sound like a bit of a reckless move to intentionally stimulate a deadly virus within your body, as soon as the dormant viruses begin to replicate the ARV drugs can wipe them out. The goal is to completely clear the virus from the body. So far this technique is only being carried out in test tubes. Look for hopeful stories about human trials of this approach by year end.
2. NASA Gets a Lift
This prediction is influenced by my ongoing heartbreak over the end of the space shuttle program. Having been born in 1966, manned space flights have been an influence and fascination all of my life. The space program had many direct and indirect benefits for the nation, both culturally and economically. So let me go out on a limb and predict that in 2014 NASA will inspire again and start work on a space elevator.
Much of the difficulty and expense of space flight is related to the first couple of minutes during which the rockets must propel the vehicle out of the earth’s atmosphere and away from its gravitational pull. If one could build an elevator which could lift the crafts to a location above the atmosphere, the required energy and expense would drop dramatically. Most conceptual designs for a space elevator include a space port positioned above the atmosphere which is attached to the earth with a very long and sophisticated rubber band. As earth rotates, so does the space port at the end of the rubber band. Elevator cars would crawl up and down the band delivering people, supplies, satellites and spacecrafts.
3. The Sun King Defeats King Coal
Humanity has been able to produce electricity from solar panels for more than a century. Until recently, this approach was too expensive to generate large amounts of electricity. But in a similar manner to computer chips getting faster and faster, solar panels have been getting more and more efficient. For the last decade or so, and particularly during 2013, there have been increasing numbers of claims that solar power has become cheaper than electricity generated from coal-fired power plants.
What makes this analysis difficult and controversial is deciding exactly what to include in the cost calculations. For example, in order to make electricity from coal, it is first necessary to transport the coal from the mine to the power plant. If your intent is to make coal look inexpensive, you ignore this part. If you want coal to look expensive you include this part and perhaps also an estimated future expense for environmental remediation. As a result, you can find many different calculations for the cost of coal and solar power, depending on the author’s goals and objectives.
The key take-away here is that we have come to the point in the discussion where both sides, pro-coal and pro-solar, are quibbling about secondary effects in the calculation, a clear indication that they are nearing equivalence in cost. And if the cost is the same, unless one owns coal mines, solar is clearly the way to go.
During 2014, I predict that the concept that solar is cheaper than coal will enter the public consciousness and influence the public debate on matters such as whether to build new coal-fired power plants or if it should be legal for home owners’ associations to prohibit or limit the use of solar panels.
4. Biodiesel Now a Bad Word
I wrote a multipart series on biofuels in late 2011 which described some of the problems with biofuels in general and biodiesel in particular. The primary raw material for biodiesel is vegetable oil. The determination of whether biodiesel is a net positive or net negative to the environment and to humanity is the source of the vegetable oil.
The vast majority of biodiesel produced in the world uses vegetable oil from plants like soybeans and palm grown on land that previously had been farms or forests. In addition to the attendant problems of deforestation, the conversion of arable land from food to biofuels production is resulting in hunger in many areas of the world and is a major contributor to the rise in food prices around the globe.
There are at least two “good” sources of vegetable oil for biodiesel. Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro collects waste grease from restaurants in the area and converts it to fuel. This is a carbon-neutral approach to fueling cars and is much better than land-filling the grease. The Holy Grail of biodiesel is to use algae to make the vegetable oil. The appeal of algae stems from its high growth rate and its ability to grow in places that don’t displace forests or farms, such as waste water ponds or in bioreactors. Unfortunately, this technology is many years away from being viable.
By the end of 2014, I think biodiesel will have lost its former prestige as a source of clean energy and its production levels will drop.
5. The New Chemo
The key flaw of chemotherapy is that cancer is localized and the treatment is systemic. Therefore, in order to supply sufficient medicine to the tumor, you must also subject the rest of the body to high concentrations of these toxic agents. This results in unpleasant side effects during chemotherapy and can cause damage to the patient’s DNA which can result in secondary cancers. Furthermore, the dosage of chemotherapy is often determined by the side effects that the patient can tolerate rather than the amount needed to eliminate the tumor. An approach which could eliminate or reduce the side effects opens the possibility of increasing the dose of drugs to the tumor and increasing survival rates.
Many researchers are working on new chemotherapy delivery techniques that supply the drugs selectively to the tumor while sparing the rest of the body. Some of the more promising of these approaches utilize nanoparticles which encase the drugs until they reach the tumors. In theory, this approach should spare the remainder of the patient’s body from the side effects of the drugs.
I’ve been following stories on these technologies for many years. My sense (hope?) is that 2014 will be the breakout year for this approach.
I sincerely hope that all of these predictions come true. Have a comment, question, or a prediction of your own? Use the interface below or send me an email at email@example.com.