President Obama followed through yesterday on his plan to ease restrictions on stem cell use in research funded by taxpayer money. National Institutes of Health leader Francis Collins announced that the organization has approved 13 new lines of embryonic stem cells for research, and will consider 96 more lines for approval.
In March, Obama lifted President Bush’s restrictions on federally-funded research on embryonic stem cells, which limited research to a handful of lines created before August 2001. Obama could not on his own reverse the Congressional ruling that forbids scientists from using taxpayer money to create new stem cell lines from embryos, but the ruling allows researchers to use cell lines created by others in an ethical fashion. The NIH set up a panel to decide which stem cell lines met strict ethical restrictions. The cells, for instance, have to have been made using an embryo donated from leftovers at fertility clinics, and parents must have signed detailed consent forms [Reuters].
Sleep deprivation. Stress positions. Waterboarding. These interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration in the war on terror were explained, at the time, as harsh but necessary tactics that forced captives to give up names, plots, and other information. But a new look at the neurobiological effects of prolonged stress on the brain suggests that torture damages the memory, and therefore often produces bad intelligence.
Irish neuroscientist Shane O’Mara reviewed the scientific literature about the effect of stress on memory and brain function after reading descriptions of the CIA’s Bush-era interrogation methods. The methods were detailed in previously classified legal memos released in April. O’Mara did not examine or interview any of those interrogated by the CIA [AP].
His findings: “These techniques cause severe, repeated and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function” [Wired.com]. The study, to be published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, took note of the effect of the stress hormone cortisol on the brain, as well as the fear-related hormone noradrenaline’s impact on memory and the ability to distinguish true from false.
In one week, the Interior Department has issued two bold new rules that reverse decisions on mining and old-growth forests that were made during the Bush administration. In the first ruling, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday called for a two-year “timeout” on new mining claims on nearly 1 million acres near Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona [Los Angeles Times]. That directive overrides the Bush-era decision to open land near the park to uranium mining claims.
The moratorium on new mining claims near the Grand Canyon will give the Interior Department time to study the environmental effects of mining in that area; the department then has the option of banning mining there for 20 years. Grand Canyon Superintendent Steve Martin has said previously that he was concerned that uranium could get into the watershed and affect the fish in the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge — and the bald eagles, California condors and bighorn sheep that depend on the canyon’s seeps and springs [Los Angeles Times].
The initiative begun by former president George W. Bush to stop the ravages of AIDS in Africa has saved more than one million lives, according to a new report. The study tracked AIDS deaths and HIV infections in 12 African countries getting aid under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, during the four years after it was launched in 2003 as a five-year, $15 billion effort…. “It has averted deaths — a lot of deaths — with about a 10 percent reduction compared with neighboring African countries” [Reuters], said study coauthor Eran Bendavid. That reduction translates to about 1.1 million lives saved.
However, the study also found that the initiative had no effect on the prevalence of the disease, suggesting that it has been more effective at keeping infected people alive than in preventing new infections. Critics of the program said it didn’t put enough money toward prevention of HIV/AIDS. About a fifth of the funds were dedicated to prevention, and a third of that had to be used for abstinence-only programs. Congress reauthorized the program last year, removing the abstinence-only stipulation and increasing funding to $48 billion [San Jose Mercury News].
The first clinical trial of a therapy based on human embryonic stem cells has received the green light from the FDA, marking a scientific and political milestone for embryonic stem (ES) cell research. The biotech company, Geron Corporation, received approval today for a study that would inject neural stem cells into patients suffering from spinal cord injuries. The study will be mainly a test for safety, but functional improvements, which have been observed in animals trials, may be possible. “For us, it marks the dawn of a new era in medical therapeutics. This approach is one that reaches beyond pills and scalpels to achieve a new level of healing,” Geron Chief Executive Dr. Thomas Okarma said [Reuters].
ES cells are taken from embryos a few days after fertilization and have the potential to differentiate into any type of cell in the body. The undifferentiated cells can’t be used directly, because they can form cancers called teratomas. But they can be used in the lab to generate potentially inexhaustible supplies of all other types of cell[s] that might be needed for repair. The type to be used in the trial are neural stem cells called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells. These support other neurons in the brain and nerves by supplying growth factors and by producing the myelin sheaths that protect neurons from damage [New Scientist]. The FDA will allow Geron to implant these neural stem cells directly into the spinal cords of eight to ten paraplegics. The trials are expected to begin this summer, and may be carried out in multiple medical centers. The patients have not yet been recruited because the injections must take place within two weeks of the spinal cord injury, before scar tissue forms.
President Bush will establish three national monuments in the Pacific Ocean today in a move that will protect a vast marine ecosystem from mining, oil exploration, and commercial fishing. With the stroke of a pen this afternoon, Bush will have set aside more square miles of ocean for protection than any other political leader in history. The three new monuments, surrounding far-flung islands, reefs and atolls scattered across the Pacific, will add 195,000 square miles of protected waters to the nearly 140,000 square miles around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands that Bush protected in 2006 [Los Angeles Times]. The United States has authority over these waters because the tiny atolls and islands are U.S. territories.
The three areas are thronged with fish, sharks, coral reefs, and other forms of sea life, all of which will benefit from the new protections. Blue-water fish such as yellowfin, bigeye tuna, and marlin–all in decline–will be big winners because they breed in these waters. So will sharks, birds, turtles, and dolphins accidentally caught by the tuna long-line fleets [ScienceNOW Daily News]. One of the new national monuments also encompasses the deepest location of the earth’s crust. The Marianas Trench, which reaches depths of more than 36,000 feet in some locations, contains undersea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents around which cluster tough organisms that can withstand high temperatures and harsh chemicals. These “extremophiles” are of interest to scientists who think they signal forms that extraterrestrial life could take.
Health care workers who have a moral or religious objection to a medical procedure can’t be punished or discriminated against if they refuse to perform it, according to a sweeping new rule (pdf) announced by the Bush administration yesterday. The right-to-refuse rule includes abortion, but [the department of Health and Human Services] said it extends to other aspects of health care where moral concerns could arise, including birth control, emergency contraception, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research or assisted suicide. The rule will take effect the day before President George W. Bush leaves office [Baltimore Sun]. If a hospital, clinic, pharmacy, health plan, or any other medical establishment refuses to follow the new law it will forfeit all federal funding.
The rule has been eagerly anticipated by anti-abortion activists, but has raised furious objections from family planning groups and much of the medical establishment (groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association opposed the regulation). Officials at hospitals and clinics predicted the regulation will cause widespread disruptions, forcing family planning centers and fertility clinics, for example, to hire employees even if they oppose abortions or in vitro fertilization procedures that can destroy embryos. “It is going to cause chaos among providers across the country,” said Cecile Richards of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The regulation could also make it difficult for states to enforce laws such as those requiring hospitals to offer rape victims the morning-after pill, experts said [Washington Post].
In a signal that president-elect Barack Obama will take a drastically different approach to global warming than the outgoing Bush administration, Obama sent a video message to a group of governors who had gathered to discuss climate policy. He reiterated his campaign promise to establish a nationwide cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible, and repeated his ambitious goals: “We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them by an additional 80 percent by 2050,” he said [Reuters].
President George W. Bush famously pledged to tackle global warming when campaigning for the presidency in 2000, but backtracked when in office, saying that the science had not yet been settled. In contrast, Obama made clear that he had no intention of retreating from his campaign promises despite the worsening economic climate, and said that the science is beyond dispute. “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” Obama said. “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high, the consequences too serious” [San Francisco Chronicle].
American voters may have enthusiastically chosen to send Barack Obama to the White House as the next president of the United States, but the Bush Administration still has 76 days in office and seems to be making the most of that time by passing a host of so-called “midnight regulations.” Many of these last-minute rule changes relax environmental regulations, and watchdog groups say these controversial changes may be difficult for the incoming president to undo.
Some of the rule changes would ease or lift constraints on private industry, including power plants, mines and farms. Those and other regulations would help clear obstacles to some commercial ocean-fishing activities, ease controls on emissions of pollutants that contribute to global warming, relax drinking-water standards and lift a key restriction on mountaintop coal mining [Washington Post]. If the rules take effect before inauguration day, the incoming Obama Administration would have to begin a long and complicated regulatory process to reverse them.
In a largely symbolic but intensely political move, President Bush today lifted the presidential ban on drilling for oil in U.S. coastal waters. The action will have no immediate effect due to a separate congressional ban on offshore drilling that was passed in 1981, but the president urged Congress to revoke that law as well, arguing that the United States needs to increase domestic production of oil to bring down energy prices.
Asserting that “failure to act is unacceptable,” [Bush] said today’s move clears away executive branch restrictions on offshore oil exploration. “This means that the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress,” he said [The Washington Post]. Democrats immediately responded that Bush’s move was simply political theater. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said: “He knows ruining our coastlines won’t bring down gasoline prices nor solve our energy challenges” [Reuters].