10 discoveries that could change the world

1 Imitating life, CU-Boulder

Traditional medicine has asserted for some time that cartilage does not grow back. Professor Kristi Anseth, working at the crossroads of engineering, chemistry and biology, is challenging that assertion. She has been perfecting polymers that the body responds to as if they were living tissue; using them as scaffolding to, for instance, help regrow cartilage. She is now developing liquids to be injected into the body, which are then hardened with ultraviolet light to be replaced by natural tissue as it fills in. Her technology may have applications for heart defects, bone and tissue regrowth, producing insulin in diabetics and even brain tissue regeneration.

2 Fully charged, CSU

The world has plenty of applications for a battery that is a 1,000 times more powerful and lasts 10 times longer than lithium ion batteries while accepting a full charge in only five minutes. That is exactly what chemistry professor Amy Prieto is working on with steady progress. The sponge-like “3D lithium-ion” batteries will be cheap to produce and be highly recyclable. And for some, the best part lies in the fact that citric acid is the most corrosive thing used to manufacture the batteries. The applications extend from the obvious cell phones and gadgets all the way up the tech tree to electric vehicles and even grid storage.

3 Ditch the needle, CU-Boulder

Biochemistry and chemistry professor Robert Sievers may have paved the way to help medicine leave needles in the dust. When he isn’t breathing powder from the marble sculptures he creates, he is working with powder that could prevent diseases through inhalation. An inhalable vaccine – an unusually fine powder – he developed will hit human clinical trials soon and lead to the development of other vaccines for everything from tuberculosis to cervical cancer. The inexpensive vaccines could literally reshape vaccines as the world knows them.

4 To walk again, CU-Anschutz

Superman would be proud if he were still alive. Christopher Reeve’s foundation, dedicated to healing spinal injuries after the actor who played Superman suffered a paralyzing spinal-cord injury, funded part of Stephen Davies’ research, which has already shown the ability to heal spinal-cord injuries in rats to a nearly-normal ability to walk. The technique implants stem cells and encourages nerve cells to regenerate quickly. Because of the speedy change, pain for paralysis patients will be kept to a minimum. The technique could transfer into human usage in the “not-too-distant future,” though exact timeframes are difficult to predict, according to Davies. The cells could also be used to treat a variety of other neurological disorders.

5 Injuries that dissolve away, CSU

Band-Aids have nothing on what CSU has in the works. Researcher Melissa Reynolds is about halfway through a three-year, $1.3 million Department of Defense grant to create a biodegradable, gauze-like wound-healing material. The polymer offers healing properties through its incorporation of naturally occurring nitric oxide, which can help prevent infection and encourage cell growth. The technology could be used for both surface and deep wounds. The body would simply dissolve the substance away, leaving healthier tissue behind. Of course, the applications extend far beyond a battlefield. “These materials could be dropped out of a plane (after a natural disaster) as the first line of defense toward injuries that tend to cause long-term problems,” Reynolds says.

6 Burning ice, CSM

What energy crisis? It’s somewhat paradoxical that the source that, when burned, could possibly provide more energy than all other fossil-fuel sources combined comes from under water. Burning ice, or methane hydrates, are naturally occurring deposits of natural gas’s base component, methane, that lock into ice-lattice structures that look similar to white ice. They can be found both onshore and offshore, abounding in Arctic permafrost and in sediments along every continental shelf in the world. Colorado School of Mines researchers at the university’s Center for Hydrate Research are seeking ways to refine production models for hydrates. This could further augment natural-gas production, possibly boosting the fuel source that already provides about a quarter of all energy consumed in the United States with new power plants being constructed fast as coal’s dominance slips.

7 West Nile drug, CSU and UNC

West Nile, dengue and yellow fever viruses affect about two-thirds of the world, and yet no clinically useful antiviral drugs are available for these major killers. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 30,000 people in the United States have gotten West Nile Virus since the first reported U.S. case in 1999, with about 220 deaths reported to the center. While yellow fever is more regionalized to the tropics of Africa and South America, dengue fever is a major cause of illness and death, infecting about 100 million people annually. These mosquito-borne viruses must replicate to grow, and CSU’s Brian Geiss, alongside the University of Northern Colorado’s Susan Keenan, are developing a drug that can stop the replication by latching on to a protein needed for viral replication.

8 Medicinal snake venom, UNC

Many people dislike or even fear snakes, but their venom may hold the sought-after key to treat and prevent the spread of some dominant forms of cancer. Skin, breast and colon cancers could cede to purified compounds found in snake venoms used in anticancer drugs according to early results from research by UNC biology professor Stephen Mackessy. Not many labs in the world perform the kind of biochemical analysis of snake venom that Mackessy’s does, for reasons obvious to most. Few would question his knowledge on the subject – he literally wrote the handbook on venoms and toxins of reptiles. If successful in further development, the potential for the venom anti-cancer drugs is nearly limitless with those cancers claiming more than a million lives every decade.

9 Arsenic removal, UW

Arsenic, unlike snake venom, has no potential to cure cancer. On the contrary, it has been shown to cause bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Additionally, tests in 25 states showed arsenic “at unacceptable cancer risks” in the drinking water of a “conservative” estimate of 34 million Americans. It is introduced in water supplies often through agricultural or industrial activities. Worldwide the problem is even bigger. KJ Reddy, a professor in UW’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, invented a simple patented arsenic-cleaning process that is currently being developed and marketed. His process introduces specific nanoparticles that oxidize toxic arsenic into less-toxic compounds.

10 Efficient solar, CSM

The word “exciton,” besides being fun to say, could change the way the world views solar. According to CSM research, an exciton, or an electron filled with light energy, could potentially transfer its load to more than one electron. The result? More electricity generated from the same amount of sunshine. “We can now design nanostructured materials that generate more than one exciton from a single photon of light, putting to good use a large portion of the energy that would otherwise just heat up a solar cell,” researcher Mark Lusk said. In a world fearing the effects of global warming and fossil-fuel depletion, more efficient solar panels may sound like free energy, which can only be a good thing.

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