Biology and health

This page lists ongoing and future projects relating to biology and health that have been approved by the POST Board.

Blockchain technology in the food chain

Provisional start date September 2019: to contribute please email Dr Peter Border 

Claims made for food products are not easy to verify and have to be taken on trust by the consumer. Recent years have seen significant improvements in the traceability of the food supply chain a trend which is likely to be accelerated in the coming years with the advent of blockchain technology.

Blockchain was originally developed as a decentralised ledger that records financial transactions and stores this information on a network in a manner which prevents it being changed at a future point. Applying this technology to the food supply chain involves assigning a digital certificate to each new interaction (a manufacturing step, a change in location or a change in storage conditions) with a food product, and storing the entire record in a secure manner.

A POSTnote on this subject could look at the potential pros and cons of applying blockchain technology to the food supply chain for consumers, manufacturers and retailers.

Causes of obesity

In production: to contribute please email Dr Peter Border 

Obesity is a global health concern with the worldwide prevalence more than doubling since 1980. In the UK, childhood obesity is a particular policy concern, with data from the National Child Measurement Programme showing that between 2006/07 and 2013/14 by year 6, there was a significant upward trend for both boys and girls in obesity and excess-weight with the trend being highest for girls.

This POSTnote will examine the evidence base for the links between such factors and obesity and assess its relevance to informing policy.

Industry influence on public health policy

In production: to contribute please email Dr Olivia Maynard

This POSTnote will examine the evidence of the extent and methods through which corporate interests influence public health policy-making, including in the tobacco, food and alcohol sectors.

It will compare the approaches used in different legislation for these sectors and explore the potential regulatory changes that could result after exiting the EU, particularly for tobacco control.

Outward medical tourism

In production: to contribute please email Dr Peter Border 

A POSTbrief on this subject will investigate and present recent data suggesting that there is an increasing number of UK citizens travelling abroad for medical treatments. Poland, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, and Spain were among the most visited countries for medical treatments in 2016.

Work on this area is timely given the recent upswing in the numbers of UK citizens travelling abroad for medical tourism and can examine the reasons for and the potential risks of seeking treatment abroad as well as look at the possible impacts on the NHS.

Regulating germline therapies

No start date available: to contribute please email Dr Peter Border 

New genome editing techniques for modifying DNA could potentially be used to modify the DNA present in human eggs, sperm or embryos. Any such changes would be passed on to future generations (so-called germ-line therapy). While such approaches have the potential to correct the mutations that cause serious genetic disorders, any unintended modifications would also be inherited.

To date there has been a consensus that it would be "inappropriate to perform germline gene editing that culminates in human pregnancy" because of safety and ethical concerns. However, in November 2018, a researcher at a University in Shenzhen, China, reported using genome editing to modify the DNA of twin girls to make them resistant to infection by HIV.

The study has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, but the announcement provoked outrage among the wider scientific community. It also triggered on-going debate about what exactly constitutes a germline therapy.

For example, some scientists suggest that treatments could be regarded as germline therapy because they interfere with the flow of genetic information from one generation to another. There is also a lack of clarity over whether treatments that change the chemicals attached to a DNA sequence (so-called epigenetic changes) would constitute a germline therapy.

A POSTnote on this subject could outline the various possible definitions of a germline therapy, the potential applications of the techniques involved, and the possible alternatives. It could also examine the safety, ethical, legal and regulatory issues the use of such techniques raises.

Resilient food supply chains

No start date available: to contribute please email Dr Peter Border

The complexity of the food system and the wide array of competing ‘sustainability’ claims and certification labels make it difficult for even the most environmentally conscious consumers to make informed decisions about minimising the environmental impact of their food choices. This lack of clear information is especially true for so-called ‘embedded’ commodities, like palm oil and soy, which are typically consumed indirectly (e.g. in cakes, spreads, confectionary and soap in the case of palm oil, and animal feed in the case of soy).

New research approaches combine data from physical trade with financial records to track UK food imports back through the supply chain to provide a more accurate account of the environmental impacts of UK food imports in their places of origin. A POSTnote on the resilience of food supply chains could examine the potential for these new approaches to provide better information to consumers, businesses and policy makers about the environmental impacts of food supply chains. Such information could inform the design and delivery of more robust certification schemes that promote sustainable food systems.     

Researching gambling

In production: to contribute please email Dr Sarah Bunn

In 2010, an estimated 73% of the British population gambled at least once a year. In 2016, Gambling Commission data showed that 45% gambled in the last four weeks.

Gambling research is an active field in the UK, involving industry and academia, with funding and research grant awarding largely determined by the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling.

There is a debate as to what extent this arrangement encourages high-quality, independent research on gambling to take place. This POSTnote will describe the scale and nature of gambling in the UK. It will summarise the landscape within which gambling research is conducted, the evidence emerging from research and how this might inform policy.

Image: iStockphoto

Contact POST

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
Houses of Parliament

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