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In September, the Trump administration quietly banned scientists employed by the National Institutes of Health from acquiring new human fetal tissue for research. As effects of the ban began to reach research labs later in the year, outraged critics claimed the restraint would impede necessary medical research, such as studies to find a cure for HIV and the Zika virus. But pro-life advocates greeted the measure as a much-needed move to protect the unborn: Fetal tissue for research is usually obtained from aborted fetuses.
Congress approved the use of federal funds for fetal tissue research in 1993, during the Clinton presidency. In 2015, following the release of undercover videos that showed the sale of human fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood, the congressional Energy and Commerce Committee formed a panel to investigate human fetal tissue research.
The panel released a report in 2017 describing such research as unproductive and unnecessary for producing medical treatments. The panel’s investigators found that the overwhelming majority of current studies do not require fetal tissue, including studies of the Zika virus. The report advocated the use of other tissue types whenever possible, including adult tissue, stem cells obtained in an ethically uncontroversial manner, and fetal cells procured from the cadavers of stillborn or preborn babies who died naturally.
The NIH plans to invest $20 million toward the development of research alternatives to human fetal tissue, Science magazine reported. David Prentice, research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, believes this is a good first step and told me there are many ways scientists can accomplish current research goals without the use of fetal tissue.
Molecular and cell biologist Tara Sander Lee says ethical standards must always forbid the exploitation of one group of humans, such as unborn babies, for the benefit of another group. “Using the preborn as objects or means of experimentation, no matter what the outcome might prove or promise to be, constitutes an assault against their dignity as human beings created by God,” she told the Charlotte Lozier Institute.
‘Sun in a box’
Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers have developed a new design for storing renewable energy. The system, which they call “sun in a box,” could power a small city around the clock—not just when the sun shines or the wind blows.
The system would take heat generated by excess electricity from solar or wind power and store it in tanks of white-hot molten silicon, an abundant element that can withstand temperatures of over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It would then convert light produced by the glowing silicon back into electricity when needed.
The researchers estimate their design would cost half as much as pumped hydroelectric storage, which is currently the cheapest form of grid-scale energy storage. A single silicon storage system could power 100,000 homes with renewable energy. —J.B.
Into the far side
In December, China launched a groundbreaking mission to land a spacecraft, the Chang’e 4, on the largely unexplored side of the moon that faces away from Earth. The lander-rover combo will study the composition of the far side and conduct radio-astronomy research there, shielded from the radio noise coming from our planet.
China also plans to establish a 60-ton space station in 2022 and to launch a Mars rover by the mid-2020s. China’s space program works in cooperation with Russia and European nations but was excluded from the International Space Station. —J.B.