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The light bulbs that turned on in 2001

Six promising ideas, which began to be translated into reality this year

Tamara Traubman

Photo: ” “Advanced Cell Technology The resting guar. Cloning of an endangered animal

1. Regenerative medicine
Regenerative medicine ("new medicine" is a possible Hebrew translation) is a new concept in medicine. Its basic idea is that the body can be repaired by developing new tissues and organs, which will replace the old ones.
According to this view, the time has come to abandon the chemicals and aggressive surgeons' scalpels and let the body harness its natural repair mechanisms to heal itself.

The medicine cabinet of regenerative medicine contains stem cells, embryonic cells that can turn into any of the types of cells that make up the body, and the proteins that control them and tell them to start multiplying and turn into, for example, brain cells or muscle cells. By providing the appropriate signals it may be possible in the future to replenish the pool of brain cells in the brains of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's patients, create

Photo: ""Nature
A robot developed in a process that mimics "natural selection"

insulin-secreting cells in diabetic patients or to give new heart cells to people suffering from heart failure. The field, which until a year ago was just in its infancy, received a huge boost this year: many scientists joined the growing community of those dealing with stem cells, and a wealth of new research was published that improved the understanding of the cells.

Many years of research will be required until the widespread application of regenerative medicine. Scientists are just beginning to understand the principles of operation and use of stem cells and the proteins that control them. It is true that medicine started using the body's self-healing power decades ago: vaccines, one of the oldest and most effective tools of medicine, work by strengthening the immune system. But the new concept of healing - also known as "cellular healing" - is not just about "more of the same". Most advocates of cellular healing aim at a higher goal: not only maintaining the functions of damaged systems in the body at a level that allows the patient to continue living with a chronic disease, as drugs do today, but transforming the worn out or damaged tissues into new tissues.

2. Cloning to save endangered species.
One summer evening about six months ago, an ordinary grazing ewe gave birth to an unusual ewe. Her offspring, who did not look like her at all, was a sheep of the pollinated biological species, which is in danger of extinction. Scientists from the Wildlife Rescue Center in Sardinia created her through cloning, as part of an attempt to save the species from extinction.

So far, the little mouflon is the only endangered animal that scientists have successfully cloned. A few months before the mouflon, Guar, a wild bull from Southeast Asia, was born. The scientists who cloned him, from the laboratories of the American biotechnology company "Advanced Cell Technology" symbolically called him Noah. But Noah died two days later as a result of an infection.

In cloning the mouflon, the scientists removed the genetic material from an egg of a normal sheep and replaced it with genetic material taken from the cell of an adult mouflon sheep. An electric current united the two and caused the egg to divide, as if it had been fertilized. The embryo that developed as a result was implanted in the uterus of a surrogate sheep. Noah was cloned in a similar way, using a cow's egg.

The scientists who cloned Noah the Guar refer to the project as reconstructing Noah's Ark. At the San Diego Zoo, the "Frozen Zoo" is in the refrigerators: a repository of tissue samples taken from endangered animals. All these species, the scientists from "Advanced Cell Technology" claim, can be cloned and returned to nature, where they can continue to breed with members of their species born in the usual way.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea that cloning will save endangered species. Some conservation experts fear that large budgets will be diverted to cloning efforts, detracting from projects to preserve the animals' natural habitats. A species whose habitat is destroyed, they say, will remain an attraction in a zoo, but not beyond that.

3. Robots that plan and build themselves. Some scientists claim that despite the enormous efforts put into the development of robots in recent decades, the intelligence of the most sophisticated robots available today is comparable to that of a cockroach. According to them, the life that those robots are supposed to imitate is too complex, and decades of additional research will not succeed in deciphering what is actually necessary to think or act like a human being. Instead, these scientists propose to design robots subject to the process that led to the creation of all life on Earth: evolution.

Two scientists from Brandeis University succeeded in producing such robots: the robots developed in an evolutionary process and created another robot, without significant human intervention. The development of the robots was done on a computer, and they were built randomly from three building blocks - rods, muscles and artificial nerve cells. Successful robots – in this case, robots that went fast – multiplied; Less successful robots are extinct. At the end of the process, the computer sent the most successful robots to a production machine, which built them in reality.

These robots for now look more like little plastic toys, and the only thing they know how to do is walk. But improvements in this method may lead to a large decrease in the development and production costs of robots capable of performing simple tasks, and it is possible that in decades more sophisticated robots will be able to truly meet the definition of "artificial life".

4. AIDS medicines at discounted prices
Most AIDS drugs are protected by patents, which gives drug companies a monopoly and allows them to charge high prices for them. This year, pharmaceutical companies succumbed to the pressure of African countries and various organizations in the West and began to allow companies that produce generic drugs to sell AIDS treatment drugs at discounted prices.

The Indian pharmaceutical company "Cipla", for example, today offers a treatment that combines three drugs for AIDS that costs 350 dollars per year for one patient. "With this amount," says the document published by the UN World AIDS Organization, "it is possible to expand the circle of patients that exists today and treat a tenfold higher number of people."

5. Pharmacogenomics. As we know, different patients, who receive exactly the same medicine in exactly the same doses, react to it in different ways. Sometimes, a well-known medicine that is considered safe causes the minority of patients to have severe reactions and may even lead to death. That is why doctors have been trying for years to find out how it is possible to adjust medicines personally to the patient. A new field called pharmacogenomics (a combination of pharmaceutics and genomics) is now trying to solve the problem with the help of new tools, and to match drugs to patients according to their unique genetic structure.

The field of pharmacogenomics grew out of the human genome project, within the framework of which a draft containing the sequence of the DNA units that make up all human genes was completed in February of this year. The search for the perfect personal treatment is done by examining the relationship between small genetic variations that differentiate between different people and the effect of these variations on the patient's response to the drug.

The diseases are defined today roughly, inclusively. Although in all patients with heart failure, the heart muscle is weakened and is not able to pump blood to the body sufficiently, but because each patient has a slightly different genetic structure, for some patients the conventional medical treatment will simply not have an effect. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati recently discovered such a variation. The variation leads to the production of a protein that counteracts the effect of the drugs for the disease. But this does not mean that the fate of these patients is decided. On the contrary, the doctors began, as far as possible, to give them the appropriate drug treatment, and put them at the top of the list of those waiting for a heart donation, due to the danger to their lives.

Today, the pharmaceutical companies are hunting for these variations. But it is not clear how they will apply the new information and who will benefit from its fruits. For example, will they develop specific drugs also for people with a rare genetic structure, or will they focus only on drugs suitable for larger populations?

6. Culture in chimpanzees.
About two years ago, the scientific journal "Nature" published the results of eight studies that examined the behavior of chimpanzees in Africa. The conclusion of the researchers, led by Jane Goodell and Andrew Witten, was that there are 39 main differences between the different groups of chimpanzees in Africa, which can only be attributed to learning and not to instincts. According to them, it turns out that man is not the only animal that creates culture and passes it on to future generations.

A few months ago, a book was published in the United States that takes this statement one step further. In the book, called "Significant Others," primatologist Prof. Craig Stanford claims that "the great apes and humans were sewn from the same evolutionary fabric. All that fundamentally differentiates us is the posture: we walk on two and the great apes walk on all fours." According to Stanford, all other characteristics, from the size of the brain and how it functions to other anatomical characteristics, "are quantitative differences, not qualitative...
The great apes have cultures that are simplified versions of human culture. Social intelligence, cheating, empathy, solving problems in a logical way - all of these exist among the great apes in a variety of complex ways."

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