Is it possible to cure Ebola, find cheap alternatives to fossil fuel, slow the aging process and provide clean water to the world? According to the National Geographic series "Breakthrough," major scientific discoveries are bringing us closer to solving problems that seemed insurmountable before.
Premiering Nov. 1, the six-part series follows scientists making strides in the fields of epidemiology, robotics, neuroscience, gerontology and in two major environmental issues: alternative clean energy and the diminishing supply of potable water. With Hollywood heavyweights directing and often narrating each episode from a unique point of view, remarkable stories emerge.
Directed and narrated by Peter Berg, "Fighting Pandemics" kicks off the series and presents the strides being made in battling Ebola and other fatal infectious diseases. Dr. Maria Croyle (right) of the University of Texas in Austin has developed a fast-acting, needle-free Ebola vaccine that's inhalable and environmentally friendly — there's no syringe waste.
"We're very confident that our vaccine works, but we need to find a partner that will fund it and have the facilities to make this on a large scale so that we can get the vaccine to a wide variety of people for further testing," Coyle says.
The second episode, "More Than Human," delves into innovations in the robotics industry that bring us closer to making science fiction's cyborgs a reality. Directed and narrated by Paul Giammatti, who also serves as on-camera interviewer and participant, the episode investigates inventions like an exoskeleton designed to help industrial workers lift heavy tools, reduce fatigue and increase productivity.
In episode three, "Decoding the Brain," director Brett Ratner shows how advances in neurosurgery and electrode implant technology can stop epileptic seizures, alter memory and possibly help those afflicted with PTSD and Alzheimer's.
"I've always been fascinated with the brain, and there's so little that we really know about it," says Ratner. "The breakthroughs are life changing, not only for the people that are creating them but for the people that they are affecting," such as the epileptics that suffer from debilitating seizures who are profiled. "These episodes are about the humanity and the characters, and not just about the science of it all," he emphasizes.
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Ron Howard, who produced the entire series with Brian Grazer, directed and narrates the fourth episode, "The Age of Aging," which focuses on efforts to slow the aging process, or as writer/producer Kurt Sayenga puts it, "turn off the self-destruct switch."
According to Brian Kennedy, director of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, "Aging is the biggest risk factor for all of these chronic diseases we care about, and it's possible to slow the aging process. This show is really about the biology of aging, and it's also about how we take these interventions we've learned mostly in animal models and apply them to humans in the way that we can extend healthspan and prevent multiple chronic diseases at the same time. We want to keep people healthy and functional longer, and if we do that, we'll prevent the onset of all of these chronic diseases. The best way to treat Alzheimer's is not to get it, and that's what we're trying to do."
The economic implications are huge, Kennedy points out. "We're spending 19 percent of our GDP on healthcare right now. That's not sustainable. If we can develop cheap and easy ways to keep you healthy, it will be a major savings."
Drugs like Rapamycin have made mice live 30 percent longer in tests and Metformin, a generic diabetes drug that's widely available and affordable, shows promise as well, extending the lives of mice by 10 to 15 percent.
"There are a lot of potential breakthroughs and some of them are starting to be tested in humans," says Kennedy. "The question is how do we go through the regulatory hurdles, get the FDA on board, and really get the support we need to start to test these concepts.”
In the fifth episode, "Energy on the Edge," director Akiva Goldsman presents energy innovations like a man-made tornado that powers a turbine, a massive solar-energy farm, harnessing geothermal energy in Iceland, a brewery that converts waste to energy and experiments in nuclear fusion. "There are tons of great alternatives to fossil fuels," says Kurt Sayenga, but the key is developing sources that are similar in cost "or people will never adopt them."
The final installment of "Breakthrough" focuses on the impact of droughts in California and Australia and the lack of drinking water in Ethiopia and promising solutions to the problems, including waste water purification and conversion and desalinization and a simple, sustainable tower that captures water from the atmosphere
"Water is critical. Without it, we perish," says Angela Bassett, who directed and narrates the episode. "Only 1 percent of the water on Earth is fresh water that we can consume. There's not one answer for this massive issue — different situations require different innovations and technology. Great minds, great experts, curious seekers have to find ways to continue this resource for us, not only for us, but for generations to come."
The common thread in all the "Breakthrough" episodes is "significant issues and people actually trying to change the world for the better," says Kurt Sayenga. "A big part of our mission statement is trying to humanize science. We're trying to walk the line between the hard-core science and the personal stories, the human drama." The emphasis is on the positive, and that's the message he hopes viewers take away. "I think they'll be impressed by the fact there is hope."