In with the new

January 3, 1997

What will the sciences look like in 1997 and who will be the people to watch? Graham Lawton, in the final part of the series, spots the projects to watch

The big biological news of 1996 looks likely to dominate next year. It is now generally accepted that the new variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is linked to BSE, or mad cow disease. 1997 promises to be a year of intensive prion disease research.

Epidemiologists will be monitoring the number of new cases of CJD affecting humans. The important question of 1997 will be; what do the 14 or 15 cases identified so far mean? Are they the tail end of a small outbreak or the start of a major epidemic? According to a spokesman for the Institute of Animal Health in Edinburgh, alarm bells will start ringing if the rate of new cases does not begin to slow down.

If the CJD outbreak continues to grow there will be a pressing need to improve pre-clinical diagnosis because early diagnosis is the key to developing therapies. Research using sheep tonsil tissue suggests that scrapie, which belongs to the same family of diseases, can be detected before symptoms develop, raising hopes for a diagnostic CJD test in 1997. The new form of CJD is producing excitement in another field. Glycobiology - the study of the sugar chains that are attached to protein and fat molecules - has enjoyed tremendous growth in recent times.

There is an inkling in the glycobiology community that there may be a connection between the way sugars attach to prion proteins and their disease causing capabilities. CJD, BSE and scrapie are caused by a brain protein that changes shape, but how the change occurs is unknown. Glycobiologists are also beginning to realise that sugar attachments on proteins can have important signalling and regulatory functions. One recently discovered protein has attachments that seem to have contraceptive and immunosuppressive effects.

In cell biology, researchers in programmed cell death are confident of another good year. The fact that all cells have a built-in suicide programme and will self-destruct unless instructed not to has only been fully recognised in the past few years. Cell death research has important implications for treating cancer, viruses and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. Researchers hope that over the next year they can finally unravel the complex genetic and metabolic pathways involved in the process (see box).

Alzheimer's and other memory impairment diseases could be pushed back on another front over the next 12 months. A rigorous approach to developing memory enhancers - also known as smart drugs - looks to be paying dividends (see box).

The big environmental questions in 1997 will centre on the final stages of the climate change negotiations. The final round of talks, to begin in Japan in early December 1997, will test how seriously the world's policymakers are taking the threat of global warming.

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