As a new year dawns we’re in the midst of the toughest times most of us have ever experienced. Bad news about the pandemic and the health of the planet is superseded each day by even worse news. Twenty-four hour media pump alarming information into our lives continuously, adding to the gloom. And yet it’s the beginning of a New Year – traditionally a time for looking forward with hope and determination.
Scientific literature, on the other hand, always carries stories about how the world could be a better place and how so many of our fellow citizens are doing their utmost to make it so. Here, in the spirit of renewal, are some stories about the best of human endeavour.
Coronavirus vaccine: the Oxford-Astra Zeneca story
Traditionally vaccines have been developed by using a killed or weakened form of the original infection or fragments of it. Unfortunately this process is relatively slow, as the response to Ebola in 2014-2016 showed. Since then however, a plan has been put together internationally to anticipate any new, unknown infection, known in the trade as “Disease X”. As part of this plan, scientists at The Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford had prepared a radically new approach to vaccine development, designed for rapid deployment against any kind of new virus.
Before Covid had even entered our world, they had modified an existing virus responsible for colds in chimpanzees, in such a way that it could act as the basis for a vaccine against almost anything. It had even been tried out on people. Reason to be cheerful: scientists had learned from the past and were prepared for the future.
This chimp virus was genetically modified to make it harmless to people. But because, like all viruses it had the ability to get inside cells, it was able to act as a vehicle to carry the vital message needed to activate our immune system against a different virus: in this case, coronavirus. Our antibodies recognise alien molecules, such as an unfamiliar protein, then multiply themselves rapidly and initiate an attack on them. This is what normally happens after infection and explains how we usually recover. A vaccine, however stimulates such a response before a real infection occurs, by mimicking the unfamiliar protein, in a safe way.
The challenge for vaccine designers, early in 2020, was to get hold of a protein molecule from the surface of this nasty new coronavirus without engaging the whole thing. The gene for this protein would then be injected into our bodies, to provoke our immune system into making antibodies against the virus – ready for when a real infection should come along.
This is where a different virus, the helpful one from the chimpanzees, came in. It could be exploited beneficially to break into our human cells. If it were loaded up with the genes needed to produce the alien protein, it would force our cells to start making copies of the alien protein that normally lies on the surface of the nasty virus. These proteins would float around our bodies and get recognised by our immune system as unwanted. The system would then kick into gear, producing just the right antibodies to destroy these proteins. Crucially, it would maintain copies of them, ready to fend off any real coronaviruses that a future infection might bring. Click for a diagram of the process.
This beneficent chimpanzee virus had already been developed as a vehicle for transporting genes from any undesirable infectious agent that might appear, before this new coronavirus struck in December 2019. All that was needed in the early weeks of 2020 was to load it with genes from the nasty new virus. The new virus was first identified in China and its genetic code was rapidly established. This was made available across the world by the Chinese, within weeks (11th January).
Previous work on related coronaviruses from the Sars and Mers outbreaks enabled scientists to immediately identify the “spike” protein on the surface of the virus as the target for a vaccine. Fortunately, a vaccine for Mers had already been developed which enabled the immune system to recognise the spike protein. Reasons to be cheerful: scientists had carefully built up experimental results over time ready for use when needed. International collaboration enabled these to be shared.
Genetic information from the nasty new virus was soon packaged in the beneficent chimp virus ready for live injection. Trials commenced, first with animals, to check for efficacy and toxicity; human trials followed in April. Initially, the pace was limited by funding constraints, but 8.8 billion dollars was soon raised from governments and businesses around the world through the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi). In partnership with the World Health Organization it created a mechanism to make sure the vaccine is distributed fairly to the world’s rich and poor countries. Reason to be cheerful: ethical values sometimes influence commercial decisions.
Trials were organised in each of the usual phases but instead of taking place serially, with gaps in between, they were scheduled to overlap. Phase One tests the vaccine for safety in a small number of adult volunteers. Phase Two expands the testing to a larger, broader population and checks it has the desired effect on the immune system. Phase Three involves much larger numbers of volunteers to prove statistically that it protects people in the wider population, where the infection is spreading in real time.
The normal development process take many years, much of which is taken up, according to many of the scientists involved, with the administrative processes of writing grant applications, getting approval for trials, negotiating with manufacturers, and recruiting volunteers – all of which were obviated in this case by the urgency of the pandemic. The pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca took the risk of manufacturing the vaccine well ahead of approval and regulators reviewed each stage of the process as it occurred to speed up final approval. Reason to be cheerful: imagination and determination can re-shape normal bureaucratic, commercial and political processes, in an emergency.
A key point I take from this extraordinary achievement is the importance of continuous accumulation of well-tested knowledge and understanding over the long term. Viruses were discovered in the 1890s, protein structures understood in the 1950s, sequencing of genetic material in the 1970s and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that amplifies genetic material to enable testing, in 1983. Each of these originated from disinterested, advances in chemistry, biology and physics with little idea at the time of future application.
Climate change: some possibilities
Science has been sending warning signals about the climate emergency throughout my lifetime – many decades. It has been the messenger delivering increasingly bad news about melting ice caps and habitat destruction.
But science and technology also offer the kind of hope we need in this crucial next decade. Innovation, imagination, research and development are flourishing irrepressibly across the world, however feebly they are represented in our media and politics. Each month the journal Scientific American features promising advances that inspire hope. This December in particular, it looks forward to innovations that might help make the world a better place in the years to come. Here are three initiatives highlighted by the journal, each designed to help slow the pace of climate change.
Using carbon dioxide productively.
New materials that use solar energy to turn carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into useful products are being developed in a major EU-funded programme, based in the Netherlands. One project will develop ways of mimicking natural photosynthesis to produce sustainable fuels and chemicals for renewable energy storage. Photosynthesis takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create the leaves and stems of plants and, using energy from sunlight, pumps out oxygen as a waste product. That’s why we need trees so badly and why we are imitating their chemistry.
Another project in the EU programme is looking for ways to convert solar and wind energy into chemical forms efficiently. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – a major cause of climate change – will be combined with nitrogen to produce carbon-neutral aviation fuels and new kinds of fertiliser that leave no carbon footprint.
A parallel initiative, based at Caltech in the USA, is using sunlight to generate hydrogen and to create fuels out of carbon dioxide and water. The aim is to develop commercially viable methods for making fuel from these renewable ingredients that can deployed easily everywhere.
Reason to be cheerful: at least science and technology offer practical ways to address the climate emergency, even if corresponding political and economic initiatives are still lagging.
Aviation contributes around 3.5% to global warming according to a recent study at Manchester Metropolitan university. Scientific American reports that over a hundred projects are currently underway across the world to develop aeroplanes that use electricity in place of fossil fuel. Mostly powered by batteries, they are limited to shortish flights for few passengers at present, because batteries produce around fifty time less power for a given weight than jet fuel.
Israel-based Eviation is developing a 9 -seater aircraft expected to be ready for service in 2022. It is said to be 2 to 3 orders of magnitude (100 to 1000 times) quieter than commercial jet aircraft. It costs about 6 – 10 times less to operate than a conventional propeller aircraft, so could make sense commercially.
Image by Matti Blume
NASA is developing a different design of plane that uses an array of small propellers driven by electricity from lithium based batteries/
Image courtesy of NASA
An alternative type of craft dispenses with both electricity and carbon-rich fuel, using hydrogen instead to power it. The Boeing-led ‘fuel cell demonstrator’ project (left) uses a glider as a research test bed for a hydrogen fuel cell powered light airplane.
Image courtesy of Adambro
A completely different option is to plug directly in to energy from the Sun. The Solar Impulse 2 (right) uses solar panels on its wings to charge up its batteries with energy from the Sun. In 2016 it was the first solar-powered aircraft to complete a circumnavigation of the world.
Image courtesy of Milko Vuille
The final good news story tells of a completely different way to reduce carbon dioxide levels. It demonstrates just how widespread such efforts could be across the industrial and commercial landscape. In the building industry cement is key to almost all methods of construction. Concrete is the second most used substance after water. Production and use of cement contributes 5% – 6% to global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations.
Like other industries, cement manufacturing is taking steps to reduce its emissions through energy efficiency measures, such as shifting to low-carbon fuels and processing cement at lower temperatures. But additionally it is finding innovative ways to capture some of the carbon dioxide that already exists in the atmosphere. In one example, tiles are being developed out of materials that absorb carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. In another, mortar is being produced in Italy from recycled chippings in the marble industry, that absorbs pollutants found in smog.
In Colorado researchers are even developing “living” bricks, based on bacteria. These hardy microorganisms are immersed in a solution of sand and gelatin enabling them to produce calcium carbonate as an output which, in combination with the gel, forms a firm material. They may even be able to self-heal if they crack.
Picture credit: CU Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science
As these examples show, science produces new knowledge upon which new technologies can be built. But, of course, it’s politics and finance that ultimately determine what gets done. This tiny selection of innovative ideas is intended to lift our spirits a little, by suggesting what could be done. It’s not designed to put a gloss on the harsh realities that lie ahead. It’s the choices made by political, industrial and commercial leaders that will need to be much more planet-friendly over the course of the next decade.
© Andrew Morris 31st December 2020