From a cancer test which is as easy to use as a home pregnancy kit to an environmentally friendly way to treat chemical waste, 1997 may see scientific breakthroughs with significant commercial implications.
Flint knives, ploughs, steam engines, microchips, genetically modified organisms. Ever since a member of the Cro-Magnon intelligentsia decided that mammoth steaks tasted better medium - as opposed to totally - rare, humanity's inventiveness has been changing the world around us. Moreover, if there is one thing scientific progress engenders, it is further scientific progress; back in 1608, one could reasonably say the telescope was the invention of the year, if not of the decade. Nowadays,such is the profusion and fecundity of those lab boffins that there are literally hundreds of contenders.
Of course, while clever new discoveries abound, those with real commercial value are somewhat thinner on the ground. Take, for example, Buckminsterfullerene, that much-lauded molecule whose USP is that it resembles a football. While the gee-whiz factor here is undeniable and 'numerous avenues' are being explored, there are few real practical uses for this particular geodesic soot blob. Inventors should take heart, however. After all, lasers remained something of an optical curiosity for years, marking time until the CD player's invention; similarly polythene was an exotic designed to insulate radar installations, not contain the groceries. Still, for all the inventions which hang around fruitlessly for years, there are always those with fairly immediate commercial value, and, unsurprisingly, genetics looks set to dominate the scientific leaps of the next couple of decades. Back to the immediate, however, and there are a fair number of newcomers which represent genuine breakthroughs. The most significant are outlined below. All are likely to make their market debut in 1997, and all should have an appreciable impact on the way in which we live and conduct business.
As everyone knows, one of the biggest killers in the developed world is cancer but, at present, cancer tests tend to be fairly unpleasant, highly invasive affairs. Furthermore, since tests are not easy enough to be part of a routine check-up, tumours can often be overlooked. Yet late 1997 could well see the market launch of an early test for the most common types of cancer (lung, bowel, breast, prostate), and one that may be cheap enough to form part of any routine medical examination.
The test centres around a gene catchily named CD-44. In cancerous cells abnormal CD-44 variants are produced in large quantities, and there is good evidence that they are produced early on in cancer formation. These variants are relatively easy to detect in fluids or solids which have come into contact with the affected cells. Thus, urine could be tested for bladder cancer, sputum for lung cancer and so on. Explains Dr David Tarin, Nuffield Reader in Pathology at Oxford's School of Medicine and inventor of the test, 'The positive predictive value is very high and it promises to be clinically very useful. The trick is to convert it into a simple test that hospitals anywhere can use without the need for specialist knowledge or equipment.' The university owns the intellectual property rights to the discovery which has been licensed to a major German pharmaceutical company.
Moreover, there is also potential for further development of cancer testing.
An associated gene called MAGNA similarly produces abnormal variants when the cancer is spreading, meaning a test which not only shows early cancers but also indicates whether or not they are spreading could be available within three years.
Still in biotechnology, the genetic engineering of plants has been, as it were, a hot potato of late, most famously with the appearance of the 'flavr savr' tomato. As the recent controversy over soya beans shows, the debate is unlikely to die down, especially as more genetically modified organisms, both edible and inedible, make the transition from lab to field.
Steve Milan of the Scottish Crop Research Institute notes that, 'So much money has been spent developing the technology that we're likely to see a lot more products. Those put forward for permits include flavour-enhanced melons, delayed-ripening strawberries and pest-resistant potatoes.' Caroline Brown, another industry expert concurs. 'The technology used in the flavr savr (ie that which retards softening during the ripening process) can be applied to several varieties of fruit and vegetables such as broccoli. Other possibilities include inbuilt virus resistance, which is quite advanced in bananas and, in the longer term, removing natural toxins such as those in rhubarb or even producing naturally decaffeinated coffee.' Genetic engineering is such a big area at the moment that it's difficult to list specifics, either in terms of products or of those most likely to reap the profits. Suffice it to say, by this time next year it is unlikely that tomatoes will be the only supermarket vegetables to have had their chromosomes compromised.
Although genetics holds the most promise, it should not be imagined that other areas of research are moribund. Display technology, long home to the LED (of 1970s' watches) and the LCD (which has reached its zenith in the laptop), can now look forward to another acronym, the LEP or light emitting polymer. This combines the LED's attractive ability to emit coloured light and the LCD's patternability, that is, the ease with which it can be used to display relatively complicated shapes. This propitious combination of characteristics arises from LEPs being both semiconductors - in this case, the light emitting variety - and plastics, whence they derive their malleability and ease of use.
Discovered by Cambridge University scientists in 1989, LEPs are being developed by CDT, a spin-off company. Comments Mark Gostic, CDT's marketing director, 'The first applications will be very mundane, probably backlights for mobile phone displays, but they're low cost which means you can get into the market early on, start making money and create a virtuous circle.' Agreements have been signed with Philips and 'other companies', and ultimately Gostic sees LEPs replacing LCDs as the market leader, conquering the lucrative laptop market. In the very long term, and assuming complementary developments in other components, it is certainly possible - even likely - that LEPs will permit the development of truly flexible displays.
A further area where significant development is taking place - here, driven as much by legislation as by innovation - is in the control of waste emissions. Many of the nastiest (and longest-lived) pollutants which get into the environment are the so called organic chemicals which, like oil, consist of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon atoms and are generally (given the right bacteria) biodegradable. Indeed the use of bacteria to degrade wastes is nothing new, the most obvious example being in the operation of sewage treatment plants.
Bacteria are, of course, readily adaptable and evolve quickly. Dig in the contaminated soil near a plant producing phenol and you will find them eating even the most noxious chemicals. But bacteria cannot usually be used to degrade these organic chemical wastes because the pollutants are often combined with other effluents, such as strong acids or heavy metal salts, which no self-respecting microbe will touch. Dr Andrew Livingston and his team at Imperial College, London have solved this problem by designing a 'bioreactor' with a semi-permeable silicon rubber membrane. When the waste stream comes into contact with this, the organic component permeates through into a warm, nutrient-rich environment - a sort of microbial Club Med - where the bugs can devour the chemicals at their leisure. Unlike many such processes, this one works at room temperature and only produces waste in the form of carbon dioxide and water. Comments Livingston, 'There are three reasons to use this method: legislation is making it increasingly difficult to incinerate or just discharge the waste; operating costs are low; and it is very environmentally friendly'. The bioreactor has already won a DTI Smart award, and ICI is currently running a trial unit at its Hillhouse plant in conjunction with Membrane Extraction Technology.
None of these developments are on the market yet, so their impact must remain a matter of conjecture; any one of them could conceivably become part of everyday life or fall by the wayside. However, it is worth remembering that it is frequently the least glamorous innovations which turn out to be by far the most useful inventions: after all, the ratchets in Mr Otis's elevator were just as instrumental as steel frame technology in changing the skyline of every city in the world.