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Science highlights 2012: What’s yours?

19 Dec, 2012
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team cheer after learning the the Curiosity rove has landed safely on Mars

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team cheer after learning the the Curiosity rover has landed safely on Mars

This year has been billed as a golden year for British sport and a diamond year for the Royal Family, but has it been a good year for science?

We asked  Wellcome Trust researchers, staff and others to tell us their 2012 science highlights. From the Mars landing to metabolic phenotyping, their answers make for a fascinating survey of this year’s scientific achievements.

Dr Kevin Fong, Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow

For me its got to be the entry, descent and landing of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover.  I got up early and cycled down to the Science Museum to watch the live video feed. It was worth the effort.  It all went off exactly as billed: a genuine heart stopping seven minutes of terror.

Those guys took a robot the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, had it travel from Earth across a couple of hundred million miles, at over 13 thousand miles an hour, then shoved it through an alien atmosphere, deployed the largest parachutes ever made, dropped into a hover on thrusters and then – in a manoeuvre taken straight out of the pages of a sci-fi novel – lowered it the last few feet to the surface of Mars, on the end of a cable, using something called a Skycrane.

I could geek on about this forever but for me those four hundred and twenty seconds were my science highlight of the year.

Professor Anne Johnson, Co-Director of the Institute for Global Health at University College London and Wellcome Trust Governor

It’s a bit of an obvious choice perhaps but my science highlight has to be Jasper, the dog that walked again after four years of paralysis. He was treated as part of a clinical trial being conducted by a group of Cambridge scientists, in which olfactory cells, grown from the lining of his nose, were used to bridge breaks in his spinal chord (1).

Professor Mike Stratton, Director, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

I was intrigued by the report in the New England Journal of Medicine by Liao et al., on the effect of aspirin consumption on colorectal cancer mortality in patients with somatic mutations of the PIK3CA gene in their cancers (2).

In this cohort study, they showed that aspirin taken after cancer diagnosis, for a variety of different reasons (but not for treatment of the cancer) and at a range of doses and intervals was associated with a staggering 82 per cent reduction in colorectal cancer-specific mortality. By contrast, in patients with colorectal cancer without mutations in PIK3CA there was no effect.

The interest here is that one of the oldest drugs we know of, not under patent and available to all from the local pharmacy may become one of the select group of “targeted therapies” for cancer (3). It makes you wonder what other gems of insight are hidden in the huge amounts of patient data from such research studies and from routine clinical practice. Nevertheless, due caution should be exercised. Let’s see what prospective studies of aspirin use for cancer treatment tell us in the next couple of years.

Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement, Wellcome Trust

A scientific highlight this year was listening to Trevor Lawley from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute describe his work on Clostridium difficile. This pathogen is a major cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and is a rapidly emerging hospital-acquired infection currently confounding standard medical practices. His work showed how understanding the biology and genetics of C.difficule, it may be possible to introduce new treatments involving ‘fecal therapy’. If this works, the big question is: will we be willing to eat shit?

Dr Erinma Ochu, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Manchester, and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow

My science highlight was witnessing the myriad of ways that scientists and the public celebrated the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth and his contributions to maths, computing and biology. In Manchester and Berlin, Turing was celebrated in gay pride parades reaching over 500,000 people – something that would have been unimaginable during his short lifetime.

My own contribution to Turing Year was coordinating Turing’s Sunflowers, a citizen science experiment to contribute to his legacy in exploring mathmatical patterns in nature. Quite apart from collecting enough data for the experiment and presenting the results at Manchester Science Festival, a personal highlight was revisiting Turing’s original paper on morphogenesis and his chemical hypothesis on how organisms gain form .

I love how, in his abstract, Turing tells you what you need to know in order to understand and make sense of his paper:

“… the full understanding of this paper requires a good knowledge of mathematics, some biology, and some elementary chemistry.”

If only science were taught this way in schools – maybe we’d be creating a generation of scientists better equipped to contribute to interdisciplinary scientific endeavours of the kind that could offer solutions to the many challenges we face in society.

Dr Michael Dunn, Head of Molecular and Physiological Sciences, Wellcome Trust 

For me it’s the year that next generation sequencing has started to pay back in spades.  A particular highlight was the Cell paper from the Sanger Institute in June untangling the molecular evolution of 21 breast cancers and identifying mutational patterns across these genomes (4).  Understanding the full genomic complexity of cancer will be critical to improving diagnosis and ultimately treatment with new therapeutics.

John Cooper, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy CEO, Francis Crick Institute 

My involvement in the Francis Crick Institute project over the last three years has made me increasingly aware of the importance of collaboration in Science, and of the connections between different branches of life science research.

An excellent example of this was published in Nature in October this year by George Kassiotis and Jonathan Stoye of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, which will become part of the Crick when our building is finished in 2015.

The genomes of human beings, like those of all mammals, contain the relics of ancient ancestral retroviral infection.  Virtually all of these viral sequences are inactive, often because they have been “silenced” by some mechanism or other.  Working in conjunction with researchers in the USA and France, George and Jonathan showed in mouse models how ancient viruses in our DNA can be reactivated by exposure to bacteria—including those that naturally live in our bodies—and that these viruses can cause cancer (5).  Their research has demonstrated a new and hitherto unsuspected link between immunity, infection and cancer.

Further information on this very interesting work can be found on the Crick website.

Professor Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education, Imperial College London, and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow 

My current science highlight is the idea of employing metabolic phenotyping in a clinical environment (6) – using mass spectrometry to analyse tissue, body fluids, or even surgical smoke, and create an instant biological profile. This could revolutionise how we think about disease and treatment.

What are your science highlight from the past year? Tell us in a comment or tweet on the hashtag #scilights.


  1. Granger, N (2012). Autologous olfactory mucosal cell transplants in clinical spinal cord injury: a randomized double-blinded trial in a canine translational model. Brain, 135 (11), 3227-3237 PMID: 23169917
  2. Liao, X (2012). Aspirin use, tumor PIK3CA mutation, and colorectal-cancer survival. N Engl J Med, 367 (17), 1596-606 PMID: 23094721
  3. Pasche, B (2012). Aspirin–from prevention to targeted therapy. N Engl J Med, 367 (17), 1650-1 PMID: 23094728
  4. Stratton, MR (2012). Mutational Processes Molding the Genomes of 21 Breast Cancers. Cell, 149 (5), 979-993 PMID: 22608084
  5. Kassiotis, G (2012). Resurrection of endogenous retroviruses in antibody-deficient mice. Nature, 491, 774-778 PMID: 23103862
  6. Lindon, JC (2012). Metabolic phenotyping in clinical and surgical environments. Nature, 491, 384-392 PMID: 23151581
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