- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Medical and scientific achievements in 2008 seldom were as dramatic as this month’s announcement that doctors at the Cleveland Clinic had done the first transplant operation in this country to replace most of a patient’s severely malformed face.

The operation took 23 hours, with a rotating crew from several medical specialties performing a complicated set of procedures intended to transform the unnamed woman’s life as well as her physiognomy. Until now, she could only breathe through a tube in her throat. The first partial transplant of this kind was performed three years ago in France.

Drama is relative because different branches of science have differing views on what constitutes a notable advance and how their discoveries will affect society’s well-being. Often, what science gives, science takes away - especially in medical matters, where many so-called pharmaceutical breakthroughs this year seemed to generate more controversy than usual.

A major study showed how standard cholesterol-fighting drugs, popularly known as statins, can lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes even in people with low cholesterol. This had great potential significance because half of these ailments occur in people without high cholesterol, but findings immediately stirred debate among experts over the implications.

The ever-broadening field of genetics made headlines, as usual, but gene therapy progresses slowly with its promise of being better able to detect, control and treat human disease and dysfunction. DNA pioneer James Watson had his entire genome sequenced for a little less than $1 million. New to the market was a commercially available test offered to the public for a minimum of $400 (plus some saliva) that claims to enable a person to map his genome in a more limited way.

Epigenetics - the inheritance of propensities acquired in the womb - gained further attention with the publication in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology of a study linking the consumption by a pregnant woman of the nutrient choline - found in eggs and other foods - to breast cancer in her offspring. Another shows how a pregnant woman’s consumption of just two cups of coffee during early pregnancy may affect fetal heart development and likely the heart’s function throughout the child’s life.

“Epigenetics is short-term; we control its effects by controlling the environment, utilizing all the good stuff like no smoking, exercise and correct diets,” says an enthusiastic Dr. Gerald Weissmann, the journal’s editor in chief. “This is Obama-era genetics. It means there is hope we can fix society.”

Not all effects are linked to diet, he admits, “but the point is that the diet of the mother is critical, and now we know how and why. We know now there are different ways of reading [the makeup of the gene] that are influenced by environment.”

Chemists made inroads on consumer issues, too. Evidence was presented in a paper at a meeting of the American Chemical Society about more harmful effects of grapefruit juice reacting with certain oral medications: Toxic overdoses can result from the combination, as well as the opposite. Grapefruit and other common fruit juices, such as apple and orange, can decrease the absorption of certain drugs and likely wipe out their benefit. Other researchers went on record how red wine cuts back on the cancer-causing effects of red meat and how leftover coffee grounds could be made into a new source of diesel fuel.

Scarless surgery was increasingly considered “normal,” becoming the No. 3 item on Time magazine’s list of top 10 medical breakthroughs for the year. The magazine’s example: Surgeons in California took out a woman’s appendix via her vagina.

Impressive, too, was development of a new technology using human embryonic stem cells to make enough red blood cells for a transfusion. The latter made Discover magazine’s top 100 science stories.

Nanotechnology continued its impact, as did concern about applications’ long-range negative effects. Swiss researchers were credited in the journal Biomacromolecules with developing a form of paper from nano-size cellulose threads that was tougher in lab tests than cast iron. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.) Normally paper is made of cellulose fibers that are weakened in the manufacturing process, but the new method may offer a substitute for Kevlar, used in protective vests.

First in a list of the top 10 physics stories of the year from the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society was the discovery of an unusual class of materials made from iron and arsenic. These so-called superconductors are materials that under extreme chill suffer no electrical resistance and allow electricity to flow freely without dissipating, thereby saving money and power. Costs of cooling are offset by the advantage of being able to cram more electricity into a superconducting wire than ordinary wire. Some technical details are yet to be worked out before final application, according to AIP spokesman Phil Schewe.

NASA weighed in, too, with its favorite discoveries, one of which was the safe touchdown on Mars of the Phoenix Mars Lander to shed light on that far-flung arctic environment before expiring in November.

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