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2011's Notable Scientific, Technology and Health Breakthroughs
[January 03, 2012]

2011's Notable Scientific, Technology and Health Breakthroughs

Jan 03, 2012 (Leadership/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) -- As the year 2011 ends, RALIAT AHMED takes a look at some of the most notable medical, scientific and technological breakthroughs that defined it.

HEALTH HIV TREATMENT AS PREVENTION August 2011 saw monumental advances in HIV treatment and prevention, but the most important advance is the discovery that antiretroviral treatment cuts down infection rates by more than 95%. The HIV trial, which began in 2007, involved 1,763 heterosexual couples from nine countries. One partner in each couple had a known HIV infection.

In half of the couples, the infected partner started taking antiretroviral drugs right away. In the other half, the infected partner was supposed to wait to start taking treatment until later in the course of the disease.

But four years before the study, known as HPTN 052, was officially scheduled to end -- an independent data-monitoring board reported some astounding results and decided that all infected study participants should begin taking antiretroviral drugs immediately.

In the group that waited to start treatment, 27 HIV transmissions linked to the infected partner occurred. But just one infection was passed on by the partner with HIV in the group that started treatment right away. Comparing those starkly different rates, the researchers reported that patients taking antiretroviral drugs were 96.3 percent less likely to transmit the virus.

VACCINE FOR MALARIA October this year saw a major breakthrough revealing major advances toward the development of a malaria vaccine. Results from a phase III trial of the malaria vaccine candidate RTS,S confirms it protects against clinical and severe malaria. The study shows that the efficacy of the vaccine candidate against episodes of clinical malaria is 55.8% and that the vaccine is well tolerated by children. The trial was conducted in 11 clinical research centres across seven African countries.

Each year, approximately 225 million people are infected by malaria, of which roughly 800,000 - mostly African children - die from the disease.

If after completion of the phase III trial RTS,S shows similar levels of efficacy for infants and children over a longer period and with continued low adverse effects, the first efficacious malaria vaccine could be registered and introduced within the next 3 years.

TECHNOLOGY HUMANOID ROBOTS On November 8, 2011 Honda Motors unveiled an all-new ASIMO humanoid robot newly equipped with the world's first autonomous behavior control technology.

The new ASIMO features strengthened legs, an expanded range of leg movement and stability control technology that allows it to walk, run, run backward and generally be much more agile than before.

It now has a multi-fingered hand with a tactile and sensor, which makes it capable of performing delicate tasks, such as pouring coffee into a mug.

Perhaps even more importantly, the robot has been upgraded to enable it to (autonomously) respond to movement and surrounding situations. It can recognise a face or a voice even when multiple people are speaking simultaneously - and react to the intention of the other party. It can also predict the direction a person will walk within a few seconds, and take an alternate path to avoid collision.

As one example of ASIMO's possible usefulness in real world situations, Honda mentions the recent disaster in the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. It says not only is it possible to get inside the nuclear plant, but the robot could also get into other sites where humans don't have access to.

BRAIN-LIKE CPUS (CENTRAL PROCESSING UNITS) 2011 was the year that IBM and others created chips or circuits that closely mimic the synaptic nature of the human brain. Currently, the main thing that has been preventing computers from imitating brains is their procedural, linear nature. CPUs are about as parallel as processors get, but even then when one is only talking about a few hundred concurrent calculations; in a brain, millions of neurons can process data at the same time.

To this end, IBM developed a CPU with hundreds of learning, synapse-like circuits and on another front entirely, some scientists created a massively-parallel computer out of molecules. Though it will be a while before their advance makes its way into the hands of consumers, the path may likely lead to human-like machine intelligence in the next couple of decades.

BATTERIES For decades, batteries have been the weak link in most consumer electronics. Taking mobile phones for instance, you can listen to music, watch videos and play games but one can't do these for long without plugging in to power supply. The blazing multi-core chips that allow laptops to multitask effectively also drain their batteries in just a few hours under heavy use. But scientists at Northwestern University in Chicago two weeks ago announced a breakthrough that could result in lithium-ion batteries with a 10-fold increase in both battery life and charging speed.

If this sees the light of day one can be able to use smart phone for a week without getting a low-battery warning and then being able to charge it up again in just minutes. The technology is still a long way from mass production, but according to the team, these new batteries could hit the market in three to five years.

SCIENCE DISCOVERY OF EARTH-LIKE PLANET The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA space telescope, discovered a new system of planets in February 2011.

After months of intense observation, scientists have finally confirmed the presence of planet Kepler-22b, the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun.

But as with most great discoveries, the finding of Kepler-22b raised more questions than it answered: Specifically, what is the composition of the planet's surface? Is it rocky, primarily liquid, or gaseous - the latter of which would make life more improbable, though only slightly.

We don't know the answer to that question yet, as the planet's mass has yet to be estimated. But scientists will have a better idea come summer 2012, when the Kepler field is once again visible to ground-based observatories.

The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth and orbits a sun-like star for 290 days.

THE DISCOVERY OF THE HIGGS BOSON OR "GOD PARTICLE" The Higgs Boson's(God particle) existence was predicted in 1964 by Edinburgh University physicist Peter Higgs. The controversial particle is believed to bestow mass on all other particles which in one context would be the particle that converts the intangible into the tangible. The God Particle is supposedly the key that would explain why particles have mass and the phenomena of solidity, as scientists believe that it generate a kind of soupy ether through which other particles move, picking up drag that translates into mass on the macroscopic scale. If the Higgs Boson (God Particle) the cornerstone of 21st-century physics is not there then the standard model of the universe collapses. Since particles do have mass, there must be some function that generates it.

The Higgs boson or God particle is regarded as the key to understanding the universe. Its job is, apparently, to give the particles that make up atoms their mass. Without this mass, these particles would zip though the cosmos at the speed of light, unable to bind together to form the atoms that make up everything in the universe, from planets to people.

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