This year, I read some 200-odd scientific papers (or at least skimmed them). I posted 130 articles here on Mystery Rays; of those, just under 100 were full-length paper discussions, so I probably cited, I don’t know, between 150 and 200 papers here (though not all were from 2008, of course). I aim for about 2 posts a week, so I ended up reasonably close, I guess, in spite of slowing down during heavy teaching and grant-writing periods.

(As well as the full-length posts, I included 16 short quotes that struck my fancy. The remaining 16 included a few updates on XPlasMap, and bits and pieces of baseball, pictures of my kids, and other stuff.)

Some scientific high- and low-lights of 2008, in my highly biased opinion:

Highlight: Encouraging, though not overwhelming, new on the malaria vaccine front. 1 Malaria vaccines have been extensively researched for decades, and this seems to be the best candidate so far. Unfortunately, it’s still not a very good vaccine, with efficacy levels that are in the 60% range — far lower than would be acceptable for most diseases. However, even providing limited resistance to malaria will make a huge impact on population health. As well, seeing even that much effectiveness is encouraging to other vaccine development.

Lowlight: I think the spillover from the 2007 failure of the HIV STEP vaccine trial has continued to be disappointing. A clinical trial can “fail” in that it doesn’t offer clinical success, but still give enough research data to move the field forward. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the papers following up the STEP trial haven’t managed to build on the failed trial very effectively. (Not the fault of the researchers, but apparently the information simply wasn’t in the trial data.) It’s clear that new approaches are needed, but the STEP trial (so far) hasn’t clearly pointed what those new directions might be.

Personal disappointment (and I’m sure this will aggravate lots of people) is the lack of useful mathematical/computer models that are applicable to immunology. I’ve seen a number of attempts to model immune systems, but so far I haven’t been convinced they actually show anything meaningful, let alone useful.

I’m fascinated and intrigued by modeling of bioloigcal processes, and I think there’s a huge potential there, but to date I can’t say I’ve seen much exciting stuff in the field. (I’m very open to having my mind changed; please let me know if there’s something I should look at again.)

Interesting progress: I think the concepts of anti-tumor immunity continue to progress, slowly but surely, and there are glimmers of clinical utility on the horizon. That said, those same glimmers have been on the horizon for about the past ten years, and I’m not certain that they’re getting all that much closer.

More interesting progress: Organ transplanation is finally starting to take some advantage of regulatory T cells, inducing controlled tolerance in a planned, reproducible manner.2 This has been the holy grail of transplanation biology for decades, and to me, at least, it seems to be almost within grasp now.

In a few days I’ll post my list of my favourite papers of 2008.

  1. Abdulla, S., Oberholzer, R., Juma, O., Kubhoja, S., Machera, F., Membi, C., Omari, S., Urassa, A., Mshinda, H., Jumanne, A., Salim, N., Shomari, M., Aebi, T., Schellenberg, D. M., Carter, T., Villafana, T., Demoitie, M. A., Dubois, M. C., Leach, A., Lievens, M., Vekemans, J., Cohen, J., Ballou, W. R., and Tanner, M. (2008). Safety and immunogenicity of RTS,S/AS02D malaria vaccine in infants. N. Engl. J. Med. 359, 2533-2544. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa0807773

    Bejon, P., Lusingu, J., Olotu, A., Leach, A., Lievens, M., Vekemans, J., Mshamu, S., Lang, T., Gould, J., Dubois, M. C., Demoitie, M. A., Stallaert, J. F., Vansadia, P., Carter, T., Njuguna, P., Awuondo, K. O., Malabeja, A., Abdul, O., Gesase, S., Mturi, N., Drakeley, C. J., Savarese, B., Villafana, T., Ballou, W. R., Cohen, J., Riley, E. M., Lemnge, M. M., Marsh, K., and von Seidlein, L. (2008). Efficacy of RTS,S/AS01E vaccine against malaria in children 5 to 17 months of age. N. Engl. J. Med. 359, 2521-2532. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa0807381[]

  2. Kawai, T. et al., 2008. HLA-Mismatched Renal Transplantation without Maintenance Immunosuppression. N Engl J Med, 358(4), p.353-361 []