Our 10 most-read science news stories of 2020

From stars in another galaxy to a microscopic virus that has taken hold of the entire Earth: in this overview we present the most-read news items about research at KU Leuven in 2020.

Bioscience engineers and economists from KU Leuven mapped out how wood could replace petroleum in the chemical industry. They not only looked at the technological requirements, but also whether that scenario would be financially viable. This shift would lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions.

9. KU Leuven researchers unravel protein mystery of three brain diseases

30 April The accumulation of one particular protein in the brain is at the basis of three very different age-related conditions. Until recently, nobody understood how this was possible. Research by the Laboratory for Neurobiology and Gene Therapy now reveals that the shape of the protein determines the clinical picture.

8. Astronomers capture rare images of planet-forming disks around stars

1 April An international team of astronomers captured fifteen images of the inner rims of planet-forming disks located hundreds of light years away. These disks of dust and gas, similar in shape to a music record, form around young stars. The images shed new light on how planetary systems are formed. 

7. These scientists are tracing the source of corona infections among Leuven students

16 December  Their Belgian corona app fell through but their test-and-trace system for students in Leuven is going at full blast. We talked to physician and researcher Joren Raymenants and data expert Klaas Nelissen. "Most students are really doing the best they can."

6. KU Leuven researchers discover defective cellular transport system as a new cause of Parkinson’s disease

29 January Biomedical scientists at KU Leuven have discovered that a defect in the ATP13A2 gene causes cell death by disrupting the cellular transport of polyamines. When this happens in the part of the brain that controls body movement, it can lead to Parkinson’s disease.

Virologists at the Rega Institute at KU Leuven have developed a vaccine candidate that protects hamsters from infection with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. In July, the team shared their results with the world on the preprint server bioRxiv. In December, their paper was published in Nature.

4. Hydroxychloroquine does not counter SARS-CoV-2 in hamsters, but a high dose of favipiravir does

9 October Virologists at the Rega Institute have shown that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine does not limit SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus replication in hamsters. A high dose of the anti-flu drug favipiravir, by contrast, has an antiviral effect in the hamsters. The team published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from KU Leuven, the University of Bremen, the Leibniz Institute of Materials Engineering, and the University of Ioannina has succeeded in killing tumour cells in mice using nano-sized copper compounds together with immunotherapy. After the therapy, the cancer did not return.

The world is eagerly awaiting one or more vaccines to protect us against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We will only be able to fully resume our lives when we are immune to the infection. According to the World Health Organisation, around 150 vaccines are currently in development. Vaccinologist Corinne Vandermeulen of the Leuven University Vaccinology Centre (LUVAC) at KU Leuven lists the different types.

Oxytocin, often dubbed the ’love hormone’, is known to promote social bonding. Researchers at KU Leuven have now discovered that administering oxytocin to adult men with autism makes them more open to close emotional bonds with others. The hormone has positive long-term effects as well.