Jan 4, 2018 - Energy & Environment

What to watch in science this year

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Space observatories and probes will be launched. Gene editing is expected to move further into medicine. And immunotherapies for treating cancer need to be evaluated to figure out how they work and whether more people can benefit from them.

Here are seven science stories to watch for in 2018.

1. Searching for planets near and far

The search for planets beyond our solar system will be taken up by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a new NASA spacecraft scheduled to launch in the first half of the year that will focus on finding exoplanets around bright stars and those close to Earth.

Its predecessor — NASA's Kepler missions — discovered more than 2,500 confirmed exoplanets, including two recently spotted with artificial intelligence. Researchers plan to use machine learning to scour more data from Kepler in search of planets that may have been overlooked.

2. Gene editing in humans

Last year, a small number of young patients were treated for cancer with gene-edited cells, and the first gene editing was done directly in the body of a patient with the metabolic disease Hunter's syndrome. "Every single study will look at what they did and will [try to] follow suit," says Fyodor Urnov, associate director of Altius Institute of Biomedical Sciences.

Several trials of gene editing — including for people with beta-thalassemia and a treatment for sickle cell disease — are scheduled to start this year and next. There have been delays, though, so we'll be following whether and when trials get underway as well as the ongoing parallel debate around safety and efficacy concerns.

3. Cancer immunotherapies

In 2017, the FDA approved the first gene therapy for cancer, and immunotherapy had some successes in treating cancers of the blood. But why some patients and cancers are susceptible to treatment and others are not remains an open question scientists and clinicians are racing to address.

  • Clinical trials are underway to test whether combinations of immunotherapies can increase the number of people effectively treated. "The data is very early but I think [in 2018] we'll see a real avalanche of studies that will point the way a little bit better as to how we should be proceeding," says James Allison, director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
  • As more treatments are approved for trials and are combined with other therapies, a challenge will be to tease out exactly which drug is having an effect and how, says Washington University in St. Louis' Russell Pachynski. "There's no question combinations are the future but the evaluation of them will be tricky." Nick Restifo, senior investigator for the National Cancer Institute, agrees immunotherapy combinations are a key focus and says we could see a greater role played by gene editing in humans to treat cancer.
  • We could also see some new trial results published late in the year on blood tests to check if cancer has returned after treatment, says Theodora Ross, director of UT Southwestern Medical Center's Cancer Genetics Program.

4. The embodiment of AI

AI continued to advance in speech recognition and game-playing last year, and robots became more mobile and agile.

What's next: trying to get more sophisticated AI into robots so that they might one day fulfill their promise to be useful and practical by taking on a larger range of tasks and adapting to their environments.

"What I'm watching for in the next year is to see a tighter integration of robotics (hardware) with AI," Georgia Tech's Ayanna Howard tells Axios. She'll be looking for more advances in giving robots emotion and deploying deep learning, a form of machine learning that loosely mimics the brain, in robots.

5. The link between extreme weather and climate change

Weather modeling techniques have become more powerful, and last year, for the first time, scientists said that a handful extreme weather events would not have happened without climate change. As modeling becomes more robust, we can expect to see more hurricanes and other events directly attributed to climate change and a better understanding of that complex relationship.

6. Quantum computers vs. classical ones

A big milestone in quantum computing is demonstrating that a quantum system can solve a problem a conventional computer cannot. One contender for achieving this "quantum supremacy" in 2018: Google.

Yes, but: "My bold prediction is that anything demonstrated in 2018 will not be useful for anything, except perhaps for the right to claim quantum supremacy," says University of Maryland's Christopher Monroe, whose company IonQ is developing a quantum computer that relies on atoms trapped with lasers. "I hope quantum supremacy — whatever that means – happens soon so we can all move on, and control and program every-larger quantum systems to do something useful."

7. Science under Trump

2018 will be the first year of federally funded scientific research under the Trump budget. We'll be watching how it unfolds and who, if anyone, is appointed to fill vacant science positions in the administration.

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