Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 16, 2016

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By: Ian McWilliams, Ph.D.

Kris Krüg via Photo Pin cc

Climate Change

Underground injections turn carbon dioxide to stone

In the race to stop or reverse global warming, scientists in Iceland have discovered a method that could trap the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) underground by turning the gas into stone. Researchers found that injecting CO2 into volcanic rock leads to the formation of carbonate minerals. Though the project, termed CarbFix, is still in development it could have important implications for climate change and for incentivizing clean energy policies.

Injecting CO2 underground into sedimentary rock (i.e. sandstone) or depleted oil wells has long been an attractive method of carbon capture and storage  (CCS), but there are concerns that fissures in the rock layers could lead to leakage of CO2 back into the atmosphere. In a joint effort, Icelandic, American, and French scientists proposed that injecting CO2 into layers of basalt could improve this method. Basalt is rock formed by volcanic activity and contains metals such as calcium and magnesium that can react with CO2 to form carbonate minerals, such as calcite, in a process known as carbonation. In this injection process, CO2 is first separated from gaseous emission then dissolved in water to form carbonic acid that is injected into basalt formations 400 to 800 meters below the surface in Iceland. A heavy carbon tracer was included in this mix so that the scientists could track the sequestration of carbon. Over a year and a half after their initial injections, the researchers found that 95% of the injected carbon had been converted to calcite and other minerals, surprising the researchers that carbonation could happen so quickly.

Though these results are promising, many hurdles remain. The carbonation process is resource intensive and requires large amounts of water and electricity, which may limit its environmental impact and commercial scalability. Additionally, while basalt is found around the world and could allow for the indefinite storage of billions of tons of CO2 with minimal leakage risk, introducing large amounts of CO2 into the ground could lead to unforeseen consequences. Although the researchers admit they were surprised by how quickly the CO2 turned to stone in their initial trials, it remains unknown how long the process will take on a commercial scale.

Members of CarbFix admit that the largest obstacle is still a financial one. With no price on carbon emissions, power companies have little to no incentive to pursue this technology. Still, the project has great potential.  Since we depend on fossil fuels and likely will for many more years, “we have to decarbonize our energy infrastructure” according to study author Juerg Matter. Matter further stated that “if it’s mineralized within a human lifetime, then we know we are on a successful pathway”. With improvement, turning CO2 to stone could become a viable strategy for controlling greenhouse gas emissions and curb the deleterious effects of our energy dependence. (Eli Kintisch, Science Magazine)

Cancer Therapeutics

U.S regulator says too many drug makers chasing same cancer strategy

Immunotherapy has revolutionized the field of oncology, but some worry that too many companies are focused on developing therapeutics that target the same pathways. At the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting last week, Dr. Richard Pazdur, head of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Oncology Drug Products commented on the abundance of therapies that disable the protein PD-1, which unleashes the immune response against tumors. So far Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Roche have all received FDA approval for therapies that target PD-1, and many more drug makers are developing similar strategies. Though these drugs have had remarkable success in the treatment of skin, lung, and bladder cancers, Pazdur encouraged companies to pursue other strategies and to invest in more novel drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies have countered that the future of cancer therapy is combining therapies to target multiple mechanisms of disease simultaneously and that approval for their own PD-1 targeting drug will allow for greater flexibility. Approximately 20 percent of patients treated with PD-1 blockers respond to treatment, with some having long-lasting remissions. However, a recent study demonstrated that combining two different immunotherapy drugs increased survival compared to treatment with either drug alone.  While most of the studies have been done in patients with advanced disease, Pazdur and other experts agree that earlier use could be beneficial for many diseases. Indeed, these treatments are currently being tested in a wide variety of cancers at earlier stages. Furthermore, there are significant costs associated with these therapies with an average price of $150,000 per year. Competition could also help lower the costs, leading to greater benefits for patients. (Deena Beasley, Reuters)

STEM Education

Genuine research keeps students in science

A new study has found that actively involving students in learning rather than in traditional lectures and labs can help lower the attrition rate in STEM fields. In a program at the University of Texas, instructors in the College of Natural Sciences replaced standard introductory courses with a three-course sequence that focuses on problem-solving and hypothesis-driven research. The program, called the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), was launched in 2005 and has since seen thousands of students complete the program. Participants choose a research stream in which they will experience hands-on learning alongside faculty and graduate students. With numerous research topics that include everything from autonomous robots to genomics to white dwarf stars, students have the opportunity to explore unanswered questions and contribute to larger research projects in faculty-led laboratories.

Researchers have analyzed the results from this initiative and found that, while there was no statistically significant different in grade point average, 94% of FRI students completed a STEM degree compared to 71% of non-FRI students. Students from underrepresented minority groups also achieved high retention and graduation rates through the program, further demonstrating that the initiative could be a successful alternative to traditional internships. These results may provide insight into how to incentivize students to complete their education and could point the way for a cost-effective approach to reach President Obama’s challenge to produce 1 million more STEM-trained workers by 2020. (Jeffrey Mervis, Science Magazine)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 16, 2016 at 11:00 am

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