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An ode to science: The biggest scientific breakthroughs of our generation

Six experts share which discoveries they think have made — and will make — the biggest impact.

We asked leaders in science, business, technology, and medicine two simple, but challenging questions.

A: What is the most impactful scientific discovery within the last decade?

B: What is the most promising scientific breakthrough on the horizon (within the next five years)?

From gene editing to black holes and dark matter, to advancements in immunology, stem cells, and AI, here is a round-up of some of the most exciting and influential scientific achievements, past, present, and future.

1. Astrid Countee, chief of staff, Cemvita Factory, Inc.

Astrid Countee, chief of staff, Cemvita Factory, Inc.

A: The further understanding and manipulation of DNA. From the discovery of Homo naledi [a previously-unknown human species discovered in a South African cave in 2013], to the advancements made in analysis of ancient DNA, to Crispr-Cas9, the past decade has seen humans break new boundaries on understanding the complexity of who we are, where we have come from, and how we might go about changing our own evolution. We have yet to fully experience what these insights will bring to us, but my hope is that we will start to better understand how we are all connected to each other, and to the natural world. 

B: I am really excited to see what is next on the horizon for dark matter. We now know that it exists and that it accounts for 95% of the universe, but we don’t quite know what it is. Since we have found the Higgs boson [the “last hold-out particle” needed to verify the accuracy of the Standard Model of Physics], which helps explain how particles obtain mass, there is hope that the Higgs will also shed some light on this mysterious substance that makes up most of our universe. Understanding our universe better could mean breakthroughs in space travel. I think that anytime we are focused on the stars, it helps put perspective on how precious life is here on earth.


2.  John Sculley, a business leader, speaker, and author; former VP and president, PepsiCo; former CEO of Apple

John Sculley, a business leader, speaker, and author; former VP and president, PepsiCo; former CEO of Apple

A:  Adapting the human immune system to kill life-threatening cancers has given new hope for cancer patients. Immunotherapy takes T Cells from a patient’s blood, then modifies its structure to kill the most advanced cancer cells. We are in the early days of precision medicine and a lot of it is happening in the Boston area.

CRISPR/Cas9 is a huge breakthrough in gene editing. It has a remarkable future from a scientific standpoint, but this is early stages — the real benefits to society may happen in this decade.

B:  The role of the placenta stem cells and how they can be used as a source material for cell therapies that do not have side effects and can be scaled to a very large number of cancer patients. So, advancing personalized medicine with an off-the shelf natural material which is foundational to our immune system.

Quantum computing will also evoke change. It should allow researchers to look at the microbiome, which has 20-40 trillion biomarkers, to understand the mysteries of the human gut. There are incredible secrets to be discovered in the microbiome that will have a huge impact on people’s health and longevity.


3. Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD, director, The Medical Futurist Institute

Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD, director, The Medical Futurist Institute

A: If I have to choose one, as someone coming from life science research, I’d choose the description of the revolutionary genome editing method CRISPR. However, I’m sure I could come up with good arguments in favor of detecting the first gravitational waves or the discovery of the Higgs boson, too.

B: If it is possible to reach artificial general intelligence, I have no doubt that it could revolutionize not only the scientific process in general but many elements of our lives, especially health care. What we might lose with the discovery of a technology of that magnitude as humanity is a different question, though.


4. Paula Ragan, PhD, president and CEO, X4

Paula Ragan, PhD, president and CEO, X4

A: In the last decade, it really is a sharper understanding of the immune system, specifically around the immune system checkpoints. I know this immediately leads people to think of some successful cancer treatments; but believe it or not, this is just the start of us understanding the broader implication of diseases of the immune system. This whole effort started more than 50 years ago; it’s just in this last decade we have seen the fruit of all those other decades’ labor. I think we are at another tipping point and there is a lot more coming. 

B: I would put this in the same category — we are all in this immune system epiphany together, as it’s something that can profoundly impact a person at every stage of their life. I believe the greatest innovations will continue to come from greater understanding of this very complicated, dynamic system and from the discovery of ways we can modulate it. 


5. Colin Hill, CEO, GNS Healthcare

Colin Hill, CEO, GNS Healthcare

A: Immunotherapy is an area of impactful scientific discoveries. We are opening up new doors for technology to help leverage the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. But a small set of biomarkers isn’t enough we need to look at others in concert and pave the way for more targeted and combination therapies. This is an area where science and technology work together to deliver more accurate care.

B: The next frontier is taking advantage of decades of data to make insightful conclusions about human disease. With the rise of IO [immunooncologythe study and development of treatments for cancer that harness the body’s own immune system] we also see the need for precision medicine and the in silico patient [a computer model of human disease based on real-world and clinical data] as the convergence of AI and ‘omics data [data derived from the genome, proteome, transcriptome, or metabolome], capable of unlocking drivers of human disease.


6. Tom Westerling-Bui, senior scientist, Aiforia

Tom Westerling-Bui, senior scientist, Aiforia

A: The direct observation of the black hole is really one of the biggest scientific discoveries of its kind, and it’s the kind that will lead to other discoveries for some time, so it will have a long-lasting tail effect. Also, the ability to easily edit DNA through CRISPR; incremental advances in our ability to grow organ constructs outside the body, and on the cheap; and stem cell utilization in research and development.

From a data science perspective, advances in AI. There is no single event I can pinpoint, but the field, in general, is advancing all of science in an unprecedented manner.

B: In the next five years, we will see if today’s discoveries worked or not. So, how effectively can we deploy CRISPR-based therapeutics and can we deliver them in a meaningful way to a larger population? We have a lot of health disparities in the U.S. — the well-to-do versus the not-so-well-to-do. Using wearable devices and other non-invasive measurement solutions, we should be able to empower everyone to make meaningful, evidence-based decisions to improve their health. But really, the most exciting thing on the horizon is the thing you and I don’t even know about yet.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B and paid for by the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.