In a tumultuous year that saw opinion turn against “so-called experts” and Brexit threatening research funding, it is not surprising that scientists are uncertain about the future.
There are, however, hints that 2017 could prove an outstanding year for discovery and innovation. Babies with the DNA from three parents could be born for the first time in Britain as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority begins to license clinics. The technique, pioneered by Newcastle University, uses donor DNA from a second mother to cure babies of diseases such as muscular dystrophy.
Prof Sergio Canavero, an Italian neuroscientist, is also preparing to carry out the first human head transplant within a year. Valery Spiridonov, 31, a Russian who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, a muscle-wasting condition, is to be the first patient.
New drugs to combat Alzheimer’s disease are also entering final trials, meaning there could be treatments for dementia. The antibody drug Aducanumab is a contender after early results showed it clears sticky plaques from the brain and improves memory.
Large-scale trials, meanwhile, will begin in the US and China to genetically edit the DNA of cancer patients, which could herald a new era of “cut and paste” humans wherein diseases are eradicated by rewriting genetic code.
Last year, Microsoft announced it was opening its first laboratory designed to find a cure for cancer by cracking the code of diseased cells so they can be reprogrammed. The first results could be ready in 2017.
Genetically modified wheat could also be grown in Britain
The researchers are working on a computer made from DNA, which will live inside cells and look for bodily faults, then essentially reboot the system.
Genetically modified wheat could also be grown in Britain. Scientists hope to begin trials which could boost grain yields by up to 40 per cent.
In South America, millions of mosquitoes will be infected with bacteria and released into Brazil and Colombia to combat the Zika outbreak. The hope is that the insects will mate with local mosquitoes and spread the Wolbachia bug, lessening the risk of them being able to transmit disease.
And British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is aiming to complete “The Big One” by May, attempting to become the first mountaineer to climb the highest mountains on every continent.
He’s 72. There’s hope for us all.