What will be the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2020? – Stuff.co.nz

Cheap, re-purposed cancer drugs, negative carbon-emissions technology, calculating how fast the universe is expandingand huge leaps forward in quantum computing.

Will one of these be the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2020?

We asked a handful of New Zealand's top scientists what "Eureka!" moments might be on the cards next year but even with their formidable combined brain power and expertise, some found it hard to answer and hinted it was difficult to sheet home specific advances to any one year.

And, as one scientist says, 2020's most ground-breaking discovery may come as a total surprise, made accidentally by a student in a lab late one night.

READ MORE:*Scientists are baffled: What's up with the universe?*Medicine already in use may help cancer treatments*Roger Hanson: How you figure out the age of the universe*Doing my part not only to be carbon neutral but carbon negative


2020's most ground-breaking discovery may come as a total surprise, made accidentally by a student in a lab late one night.

Wellington's Gillies McIndoe Research Institute is carrying out cutting-edge research into ways of treating cancer without radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery.

The institute's founder and executive director, Dr Swee Tan, believes significant steps will be made in 2020 towards "re-purposing" existing drugs for cancer treatment.

Tan, a plastic surgeon and medical researcher who has received international recognition for dealing with life-threatening and disfiguring conditions, saiddrugs licensed and marketed for a particular treatment often had other benefits.

"They can be re-purposed for another condition, for the treatment of cancer. This is usually with drugs that have been around for some time they are off-patent, so they become generic, which means they cost next to nothing.

"Another advantage is their safety profile is well understood."

Wellington's Gillies McIndoe Research Institute's founder and executive director, Dr Swee Tan, believes significant steps will be made in 2020 towards "re-purposing" existing drugs for cancer treatment.

Globally, 18 million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year, resulting in nearly 10 million deaths.

"In New Zealand alone, new cancer cases are about 25,000 a year, and on top of that there are 11,000 non-melanoma skin cancers.

"The incidence of cancer is predicted to increase by 50 per cent by 2035, which is just around the corner. We are completely unprepared for that."

The increased incidence of cancer largely bowel, breast, prostate and lung cancers, and melanoma is mostly because people are living longer and due to lifestyle and diet, Tan says.

"Part of the problem now is the expense of treatment. In New Zealand, we spend $1 billion a year to treat cancer, and that is just the fiscal cost, that doesn't count emotional or personal.

"The cost is escalating because of the novel cancer drugsand, at some point, we are not going to be able to afford treatment for cancer.

"This creates disparity in access to treatment because some of these drugs are not funded and, if you have the means, you can buy it, but I don't think that is a good way to run a society. I think a society should allow people to access healthcare, regardless of personal circumstance."

Royal Society Te Aprangi/VIMEO

New Zealand is as vulnerable as all countries to the global growth in antimicrobial resistance that is making some diseases untreatable. Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist from the University of Auckland, a Royal Society Te Aprangi Councillor and an expert adviser on the report on antimicrobial resistance produced by Royal Society Te Aprangi explains why it is such a big issue for us.

The institute has been undertaking a clinical trial based on drug re-purposing to control cancer stem cells, the proposed origin of cancer.

"It consists of a combination of low-cost, off-patent, oral medications to control cancer stem cells. We believe this would be more effective than using a single drug.

"For the cost of the drug itself, it costs about $4000 a year a patient, compared with the average cancer treatment, which is about $50,000 per patient.

"You have to prove it is effective first. The big issue with drug re-purposing is 'big pharma' is not interested because there is no money in it. The only way that we can realise the potential is for philanthropy and government to support initiatives like this."

Propranolol, a beta-blocker, had been added to the treatment for melanoma and angiosarcoma.

During 2020, GMRI would also be working on treatments for disfiguring keloid scars.

"They can cause quite significant issues with quality of life. They affect about 2 per cent of the general population, but in dark-skinned races, especially from the African continent, incidence can be up to 16 per cent.

"Treatment is really quite unsatisfactory, hence the reason why we are researching a solution. If you do surgery to remove it, almost every single one returns. Sometimes surgery is followed by radiotherapy to prevent recurrence. Topical chemotherapy is also used.

"What we have found is stem cells as the underlying problem. We are doing further work, which may allow us to develop a simpler, more effective, low-cost treatment taken by mouth, or by applying to the keloid lesion directly."

University of Auckland molecular biologist Dr Hilary Sheppard, a specialist in developmental and stem-cell biology, thinks there will be more emphasis next year on the gene-editing of adult cells.

University of Auckland microbiologist,associate professor Siouxsie Wiles, a specialist in infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance, says there are "desperately" needed breakthroughs in her field next year and beyond, including:

- Rapid "bedside" diagnostic tests that are cheap and can tell the medical practitioner if the patient has a bacterial or viral infection "a bonus if it can tell, if bacterial, what antibiotics would kill the bacterium responsible".

- Effective vaccines for tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, Staphylococcus aureus, Group A and B Streptococci, giardia "I could go on and on".

- Drugs that can kill carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae "a very scary group of organisms that are becoming untreatable".

"The other breakthroughs we need aren't scientific, they are political," she says.

"[We need] a global agreement on tackling antimicrobial resistance, which would include incentives to bring the pharmaceutical industry back in to antimicrobial development.

"Failing that, nationalisation of pharmaceutical companies so that development of drugs isn't a for-profit initiative."

Phil Doyle/Stuff

University of Auckland microbiologist, associate professor Siouxsie Wiles, says a global agreement on tackling antimicrobial resistance is desperately needed.

University of Auckland molecular biologist Dr Hilary Sheppard, a specialist in developmental and stem-cell biology, thinks there will be more emphasis next year on the gene-editing of adult cells.

"We have seen some major breakthroughs this year, such as the versatile tool which allows for gene-editing with increased precision over existing tools so the technique is becoming more reliable and safer. Hopefully, next year, we will see these newer techniques being tested in clinically relevant cells.

"As part of that, I hope we will see a community-wide discussion about the ethics of gene-editing with a particular focus on adult cells. Personally, I do not think we should be editing germline cells or embryos at least not for the next five years, while the ethical issues are debated.

"Part of gene-editing is knowing what DNA sequence needs to be edited, so I think I hope this could be the year where personalised medicine and individual genotyping takes off.

"Our research focuses on patients with a fragile skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa (EB). We are pushing to get patients with EB genotyped so that we can perform gene-editing on their skin cells we can't do anything useful without this information.

"Currently, we are paying for the genotyping out of our research budgets. Of course, genotyping raises its own ethical and societal issues, so I hope we will see more discussion about this."

In 2020, results should start rolling in from clinical trials using edited T-cells against melanoma and edited bone-marrow cells to treat patients with sickle-cell anaemia, Sheppard says.

"These are very exciting times. I'm sure we'll see more clinical trials targeting previously untargeted disorders soon perhaps for conditions like Duchenne muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis."


In this podcast, The Detail's Sharon Brettkelly talks to Auckland University physics professor Shaun Hendy about his no-flying mission for the whole of last year.

While Tan, Sheppard and Wiles are looking for discoveries on the tiniest of scales, other scientists are grappling with the biggest question in the universe.

Theoretical cosmologist and University of Auckland professor of physics Richard Easther is among those hoping for a resolution of what has become known as "Hubble tension" a growing disagreement in calculations of how fast the universe is expanding, which has repercussions on its likely age.

The Hubble Constant the number that tells us how fast the universe was expanding has always been hard to measure, he says.

"There was a period of time when a whole different bunch of approaches to measuring it had converged on a single value, which is fascinating. But just over the last couple of years, it seems like there are now two different sets of numbers you get and they've pulled apart a little bit.

"You know, there's this joke that science isn't so much about people saying 'Eureka!' but about someone looking at something and going, 'well, you know, that's funny'.

"This is increasingly resembling one of those moments.

"The numbers are clustering around two values one that would put it in the early to mid-70s [kilometres per second per megaparsec], and one that would put it in the mid- to late 60s, and the uncertainty in the measurements is such that they don't really overlap with each other.

"As the individual measurements get more accurate, the sharpness of the disagreement is growing."

University of Auckland physicist, professor Shaun Hendy, is expecting leaps ahead in clean energy in 2020.

Does it matter? Of course, Easther says.

"There are different physical assumptions that go into the different measurementsandso, if there is a real discrepancy, it would tell us there's something about the expansion of the universe that we don't understand.

"It's hinting at that. The implication seems to be that the story is one step more complicated than current models of the expanding universe might recognise.

"One thought is, that in one set of numbers, there's something that got missed and kind of got away. The other possibility is, there's something kind of physical, that isn't included in our current thinking of the expanding universe.

"The idea that there is something interesting going on is something that cosmologists over the course of the last year have grown substantially more willing to entertain."

Chris Skelton/STUFF

Nicola Gaston is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Auckland and Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

At the University of Otago, associate professor Mikkel Andersen, a physicist in the university's Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies, has been making astounding international discoveries and controlling the movement of individual atoms in a world-first laboratory experiment.

Such control opens up possibilities for a "second quantum technology revolution" and quantum supremacy, something Andersen says will creep closer in 2020.

The first quantum revolution was made possible by the discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, leading to the development of transistors and lasers, the building blocks of all computers.

In the second, he says quantum computers of fewer than 100 atoms will ultimately be able to out-compete "the world's combined conventional computing power".

"Reaching quantum supremacy means that a quantum computer will be able to do calculations that cannot be done on the world's conventional computers. I do not know if it will happen next year, but it will happen eventually.

"In recent years, Google, IBM, Microsoft and a lot of others have invested enormously in development of quantum computers. Quantum supremacy is likely still some years away, but it is one of those things that would clear all the headlines if it happened in 2020."

University of Auckland physicist,professor Shaun Hendy, agrees.

"Google declared quantum supremacy last month they demonstrated that a quantum computer could beat a conventional computer, albeit at a very niche task.

"We'll see more of this next year, as quantum computers start to stretch their legs just don't expect to see one on your phone any time soon."

Ross Giblin

Victoria University of Wellington's professor James Renwick hopes to see breakthroughs in climate change science which reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Hendy is also expecting leaps ahead in clean energy in 2020.

"We will continue to see the cost of solar and battery technologies fall, to the extent that they will start to disrupt other energy systems. We have seen this already in Australia, where it has become a defining political issue.

"It will play out differently in New Zealand, because our grid is already more than 80 per cent renewable, while many of our industrial energy systems are not. Expect to see some of our big industrial corporates Fonterra, NZ Steel etc moving to greener industrial processes."

Victoria University of Wellington's Professor James Renwick, head of the school of geography, environment and earth sciences, hopes to see breakthroughs in climate change science which reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He points to work being done at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson into the benefits of using the seaweed Asparagopsis armata as cattle feed. Chemicals in the red seaweed reduce microbes in the stomachs of cattle that make them burp when eating grass.

Renwick is also excited about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help with severe weather prediction.

"Weather forecasters are totally inundated with information these days, volumes of radar data and satellite data coming through every 10 minutes. So, AI can help in making sense of all that, and what is the most important in determining where, for example, a severe storm will happen."

University of Otago associate professor Mikkel Andersen believes a "second quantum technology revolution" and quantum supremacy will creep closer in 2020.

Auckland University of Technology senior lecturer Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh also foresees huge steps forward in AI and its applications next year and beyond.

"In the medical sector, AI is being used to speed up symptom recognition and diagnosis. Early warning signs can be easily detected, allowing fast reaction.

"Environment and climate monitoring using AI can assist with weather-cycle predictions, frost warnings, and harvest alerts. Automated irrigation is possible using moisture and temperature sensors."

There are also uses in New Zealand's burgeoning space industry, in traffic management and in the "smart home" of the future, she says.

"New Zealand is a leader and frontrunner in the development of AI and related fields. The next 10 years of technology development are set to be exciting."

David White

Auckland University of Technology senior lecturer Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh foresees huge steps forward in AI and its applications next year.

University of Auckland physicist, associate professor Nicola Gaston, co-director of the Victoria University of Wellington-hosted MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, told Stuff scientific discovery did not happen "one year at a time".

"Discoveries that impact on our lives next year will be built on work that has been going on for decades. The biggest discoveries of next year will be the ones that impact on our lives in a decade or two.

"But there is no competition between this fundamental scientific work of discovery and the development of technologies. The two go in tandemand, perhaps in 2020, we can try to appreciate that."

That may be finding a way of moving to negative emissions technologies, or changing the chemistry of materials so they are recyclable and avoid environmental pollution.

"The most important breakthrough of 2020 will be one that none of us sees.

"It'll be a dedicated student or post-doc in a lab somewhere, or up late at night on a computer, who solves the last remaining piece of one of the puzzles that underpin so much of what we hope technology can do for us in the future."

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What will be the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2020? - Stuff.co.nz

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