Stem cells: this election's neglected child

An important issue pushed into the background.

In a US election year dominated by economic issues, research using human embryonic stem cells (hESC) has received far less attention in 2012 than in previous election years – just another social debate pushed into the background, despite its ethical controversy and the fact that it could have major implications for the treatment of conditions as serious and widespread as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and dementia.

Although stem cell research isn't exactly on top of this year's election agenda, the result when America goes to the polls on 6 November could have a major impact on hESC research in the US. The main issue at hand is not whether embryonic stem cell research should be banned – both Obama and Romney agree that this research is legal – but whether it should be federally funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

President Obama has effectively made his position clear during his time in office. In 2009, he reversed a directive from his predecessor George W Bush that denied federal funding to research on any stem cells created after 2001, limiting researchers to the 21 stem cell lines (a family of constantly dividing cells) that had been derived from embryos up to that point. Obama's legislation re-opened the 1,000 or more stem cell lines that have been created since then to federally-funded research, a move welcomed by the scientific community and condemned by pro-life campaigners and conservative Republicans.

In reality, despite Obama's 2009 legislation, under the Dickey-Wicker amendment introduced in 1996 it is still illegal in the US to pursue any research that involves the creation, destruction or discarding of human embryos, meaning that although American scientists can conduct research on stem cell lines derived from embryos, they are barred from using embryos to create their own lines. The Dickey-Wicker amendment remains an obstacle to embryonic stem cell research in the US and it's unclear if the president would have the clout to do away with it if re-elected.

Romney's personal view on hESC seems to broadly follow the pro-life stance of his party; he supports stem cell research in general, but opposes the destruction of embryos for the purpose. In a Republican presidential candidates' debate for the last election in 2007, Romney stated that he wouldn't use federal funds to finance hESC research. This would essentially take the US back to the same situation as under George W Bush, and there's no reason to think that Romney has changed his position between 2007 and now.

The Republican candidate has consistently extolled the benefits of adult and umbilical cord stem cells, which, he asserts, provide the benefits of creating pluripotent cells without the "moral shortcut" of destroying an embryo in the process. Alternatives to embryonic stem cell research are Romney's perfect political solution, allowing him to appear to support stem cell research without losing the religious right by excusing the destruction of embryos.

From a scientific standpoint, his position is less tenable. Researchers have said that the development of non-embryonic stem cell types is actually dependent on embryonic stem cell research as a complementary process. So by plugging adult stem cell research alternatives as the exclusive answer to the field's ethical issues, Romney may be unwittingly damaging their development by depriving researchers of important side-by-side embryonic research.

Whatever the outcome of the elections on 6 November, the US is unlikely to live up to its stem cell research potential when compared to world leaders in the field. If Obama wins, there will at least be federal funding to study existing embryonic stem cells, but the Dickey-Wicker amendment will maintain the ban on creating new stem cell lines. If Romney turns the tide and emerges on top, American stem cell researchers will likely have to suffer through four more years in the unfunded wilderness.

This piece can be read in full here.

Stem cell issues: still important issues. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.