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Reflecting On 2016: The Year In Health And Science09:29
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Merging black holes ripple space and time in this artist's concept. Pulsar-timing arrays – networks of the pulsing cores of dead stars – are one strategy for detecting these ripples, or gravitational waves, thought to be generated when two supermassive black holes merge into one. (Image credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions via NASA Jet Propulsion Lab)MoreCloseclosemore
Merging black holes ripple space and time in this artist's concept. Pulsar-timing arrays – networks of the pulsing cores of dead stars – are one strategy for detecting these ripples, or gravitational waves, thought to be generated when two supermassive black holes merge into one. (Image credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions via NASA Jet Propulsion Lab)

We cover the year's biggest stories in health and science. Here are some of our picks:

Gravitational Waves

One hundred years after he predicted them, Einstein was proven right that gravitational waves do exist. His theory of general relativity predicted that when an object with mass accelerates, it should create a wave in space time, like a rock thrown into a pond creating ripples on the water.

Scientists at LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, announced in February that they were able to detect those waves. The waves were created by the collision of two black holes that happened more than a billion years ago.

On Radio Boston, we heard from MIT professor Nergis Mavalvala, professor of astrophysics at MIT. She is a member of the LIGO team that discovered the waves. And as she said, "It's taken 100 years because it's really hard to do. The technologies just weren't available until recently."

She also added that "This is just the start, this is just the first ripple we're able to detect. These detectors are going to get better and we're just going to listen to more and more music from the universe."

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats)

CRISPR is a powerful tool for "editing" genes. Genetic engineering has been around for decades but CRISPR makes it much easier and more doable. Today, it's being used in a variety of applications from agriculture to medicine.

The technique has made headlines recently because of a patent battle between the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley.

On Radio Boston, we spoke to Eric Lander, the director of the Broad Institute. He pointed that CRISPR technology is based on something that bacteria have been doing on their own for a billion years in defending themselves against viruses. Lander said CRISPR allows bacteria to grab a piece of DNA from the virus and put it into their own set of DNA. And he compared it to Post-it notes, saying that it "becomes a little library of reminders. And they're constantly copying those reminders onto the molecular equivalent of little yellow sticky notes."

So when a piece of DNA is found in a cell, "It compares it to the sticky note, and matches it up as DNA and RNA, and says, 'Oh, if this matches something on my sticky note of bad things, I'm going to cut it.' "

Now, humans are figuring out how to use CRISPR in potentially valuable new ways and so the patent fight over who gets credit for these new applications has very high stakes.

Ebola Vaccine

In December, there was some very good news about the Ebola virus: Scientists announced major success with a vaccine.

A new study led by the World Health Organization found that in a coastal region of Guinea, one of the regions hit hardest by Ebola, a vaccine that involves just a single shot was 100 percent effective. It's still not clear how long it will last, but it's being touted as the first effective vaccine since the virus was discovered 40 years ago.

Zika Virus

This year, there were confirmed cases of the Zika virus in Florida and Texas and more than 2,000 babies with microcephaly related to Zika confirmed in Brazil. In addition, the latest research suggests many babies whose mothers had Zika during pregnancy could have less obvious brain problems.

On the more positive side, there is progress being made on developing a vaccine. Dr. Dan Barouch of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center says, "I can't give a date as to when a vaccine might be available for the general public, but I do think that the current data do raise substantial optimism that the development of a vaccine might be possible."

Lucky for us, the mosquitoes that carry Zika don't come as far north as Massachusetts.

Penis Transplant

Boston hospitals are at the forefront of the transplant world, and in May, a Massachusetts General Hospital team performed the nation's first penis transplant. Tom Manning is the Halifax man who received the surgery. He said of it, "You know I'm not going to walk around feeling ashamed for nothing. Some times bad things in your life happen. And you can go run and hide, or you can face them. And if you want a success story, you have to at least take the chance."

The hope is that full function will be restored, including normal urinary and sexual functions.

Opioids

Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nationally more than 52,000 people died from a drug overdose in 2015, and about 63 percent of those involved a prescription or illicit opioid.

In Massachusetts, the latest numbers suggest that on average five people die every day from an overdose. Surprisingly that's not among the states with the five highest rates. However, Massachusetts is considered to be among the states that had a significant increase in opioid overdose deaths from 2014 to 2015. But, there is a new state law signed in 2016 designed to help provide treatment and cut down on opioid prescribing.

Guest

Carey Goldberg, host of WBUR's CommonHealth, which tweets @commonhealth.

This segment aired on December 28, 2016.

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