6 discoveries from National Geographic’s ‘Breakthrough’ that wowed us
Famous directors take the helm of limited-run series and make us optimistic about our future.
Can we live longer without getting sick? Find alternatives to fossil fuels that aren’t cost-prohibitive? Eradicate infectious diseases like Ebola and provide clean drinking water to everyone? Remarkably, the answer is yes, and maybe in our lifetime. Scientists are working on finding solutions to the thorniest problems humans face today, and their efforts are the basis of the six-part National Geographic documentary series “Breakthrough.” The series is produced by longtime partners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
Each episode focuses on a different subject and is directed by a Hollywood heavyweight, and features experts, doctors, researchers and inventors who are working in the trenches and people with a connection to the specific story. It’s science on the cutting edge, and a fascinating peek into an exciting future.
National Geographic sent From The Grapevine an advanced copy of the series, which debuts this Sunday night. We watched each episode and learned something intriguing from each:
1. Cure getting old and you might cure everything
With medical advances expanding our lifespans, we’re living longer but not healthier. In the “Age of Aging” episode, scientists like Dr. Nir Barzilai, an Israeli professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, discuss new ideas in aging science. They propose that instead of trying to cure cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other individual diseases that plague the aging population, the focus should be on drugs that stop or slow the aging process itself, thereby potentially curing all the chronic diseases at once. Barzilai, whose field is genetics and endocrinology, studies centenarians to see if their genes contain a protein that enables them to live longer, with an eye toward drug discoveries that could mimic the process. Test results with the drug Rapamycin are promising, increasing the healthy lifespan by 30 percent in mice. But the answer may lie in another medicine that millions of diabetics already take. Metformin is an inexpensive, safe, generic drug that’s widely available, and in tests it made mice live 10 to 15 percent longer. (Airs Nov. 29)
2. We’re close to a vaccine for Ebola
The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed thousands, spreading rapidly and even reaching U.S. shores, driving home the seriousness of the crisis. But deadly Ebola has a formidable enemy in a new vaccine now being tested. Dr. Maria Croyle at the University of Texas in Austin has developed an inhalable, stable, fast-acting, long-lasting vaccine made from natural ingredients. “We’re very confident that our vaccine works,” says Croyle. “But we need to find a partner to fund it and make this on a large scale so we can get it to a wide variety of people for further testing.” Find out more in The “Fighting Pandemics” episode, directed and narrated by Peter Berg. (Airs Nov. 1)
3. We’re turning into Cyborgs
Forbes named ReWalk, the Israel-based maker of a robotic exoskeleton that helps people with spinal cord injuries to walk, one of its top 10 health technology companies to watch. (Photo: ReWalk)
The fictional human-robot hybrids of science fiction stories aren’t so farfetched anymore. Remarkable innovations are already being mass produced, including exoskeletons that help paraplegics walk from the Israeli company ReWalk. That device and others, such as an implanted electrode that stops seizures, are the subject of the “More Than Human" episode, directed and narrated by Paul Giamatti. Dr. David Eagleman of Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has developed a vest that enables the deaf to "hear" via vibrations on their torsos. Other scientists are working on the idea of editing the genetic code, thereby altering the brain. (Airs Nov. 8)
4. Only 1% of the world’s water is drinkable
Most of the water on Earth is seawater or locked in ice, and severe droughts have made the problem worse. Many in developing countries have no access to clean water, leading to a major public health crisis. Actress Angela Bassett takes on the issue in “Water Apocalypse," directing and narrating the hour that focuses on solutions to the problem, including desalinization systems, a water tower that collects moisture from the air and an Arizona plant that turns human waste into potable H20. (Airs Dec. 13)
5. There are no pain receptors in the brain
That’s why the epileptic patients undergoing brain delicate surgery while awake in “Decoding the Brain” don’t feel anything. But their seizures are greatly diminished after having electrodes implanted in very specific areas. Stimulating various areas can alter memory, which could help people suffering from PTSD. Coma patients and Alzheimer’s patients may one day benefit from this kind of “brain pacemaker.” Director Brett Ratner, who's mostly known for his action-adventure movies, was drawn to the subject because his grandmother had been misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “There's so little that we really know about the brain,” he says, but this episode is quite the eye-opener. (Airs Nov. 15)
6. Man-made tornadoes could power the planet
It’s in the early stages of development and needs major funding to go further, but Canadian engineer Louis Michaud’s prototype vortex shows promise. It’s one of several clean energy alternatives to unsustainable fossil fuels that director Akiva Goldsman presents in “Energy on the Edge.” There’s also a massive solar energy farm, attempts to harness the power of nuclear fusion, and a trip to Iceland, where geothermal energy and hydroelectric plants provide 100% of the electricity. (Airs Dec. 6)
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE: