Top tips for tax relief

Most of us have heard or read about NISA, pension contribution tax relief, capital gains and personal annual allowance, but do we all use them each year?

I doubt it – many people don’t maximise opportunities for tax relief. There are too many things to worry about – work, shuttling children back and forth to various activities, DIY. There are often much more pressing matters that stand in the way of properly analysing your tax accountability. In fact, most people do what they can to avoid thinking about tax until January, before the annual race to get your tax return in.

But if you knew what to look out for, there are some really good opportunities to reduce your tax liability. Here are some top tips for tax relief:

  • Tax allowance for spouses: in addition to these commonly known allowances, couples now are able to register to shift unused tax allowance between spouses, which could help them save up to £220 a year. If you claim it now, it can be back-dated so you can claim another £212 for 15/16 tax year.
  • Use your tax relief allowance: either to reduce your tax bill, or use your allowances to help loved ones who are just over thresholds such as the Child Benefit Earning threshold or the 20% tax rate threshold. With careful planning, a timely gift to them of a sum of money, which they place in their pension, allows them to use up their pension allowance while reducing their taxable earnings by that same amount. This gift can also help reduce your estate for Inheritance Tax (IHT) purposes if that is something you are interested in doing or help you use your annual gift allowance.
  • Older and wiser: as you get older, there are certain age-related allowances that can reduce your tax. Some are amounts of income that you don’t have to pay tax on, others are amounts that reduce your tax bill. Try to discover some of these this tax year like personal savings allowance and new dividend tax allowance.
  • Capital Gains Tax (CGT): were you aware that in the last budget the rates of capital gains tax – were cut? The CGT rate for basic rate taxpayers will fall from 20 per cent to 10 per cent, while the rate for higher rate taxpayers will fall from 28 per cent to 18 per cent. However, the rates of CGT payable on residential property sales will remain unchanged at 18 per cent for basic rate taxpayers and 28 per cent for higher rate taxpayers.

As the saying goes nothing is as certain as death and taxes. But with some careful planning it’s possible to see some real opportunities to maximise tax relief and drive down your tax liability. Thinking about tax might not be everyone’s cup of tea – but by putting it to the bottom of your to-do-list, you really could be missing a trick. So, why not consider whether these top tips for tax relief are right for you?

Tax treatment set out above is based on our current understanding of UK legislation. It is a broad summary and cannot cover every circumstance, it does not constitute advice. Tax benefits depend upon the investor’s individual circumstances; levels and bases of taxation may be subject to change in the future.

You should not take, or refrain from taking, any action based solely on this article. The investments discussed in this article may not be suitable for all investors. Investors should make their own investment decisions based upon their own financial objectives and financial resources and, if in any doubt, should seek advice from an investment advisor.

Your capital is at risk. The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up and you may not get back the amount originally invested.

Opera’s awful role models and the #MeToo moment

A typical work has as much sex and violence as “Game of Thrones”, but a less plausible plot. Should we expose our children to such filth?

Nearly all the great operas are crammed with gore, crudity and all the things from which right-thinking parents seek to shield their precious progeny. And the main characters, especially the female ones, make appalling role models. They fall for the worst sort of men: jealous, violent soldiers (“Carmen”, “Otello”) or unprincipled rakes (“Rigoletto”, “Don Giovanni”). They die horribly: Aida is buried alive; Madame Butterfly stabs herself; Tosca throws herself off a castle parapet. Even the ones who do not die violently succumb to unpleasant diseases (“La Boheme”, “La Traviata”).

Operatic heroines often make awful decisions. Gilda, in “Rigoletto”, sacrifices her life to save the Duke who raped her, because she loves him, even though she overhears him seducing another woman with the same lies he once used on her. Carmen lacks even basic common sense. Confronted by a homicidal ex-boyfriend who whips out a knife and demands to know if she still loves him, she should have played for time. There’s a bullfight nearby, it’s almost over and the crowd will be out in a few minutes. Just keep him talking, for heaven’s sake, and you’ll be safe. Instead, she throws the ring he gave her in his face—whereupon he stabs her to death.

“How can I love an artform that is so consistently, insistently cruel to its female characters?” asks Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, wondering if opera is “the most misogynistic art form”. She has a point. In the age of #MeToo, some directors have decided to adapt old plots to make them more female-friendly. At the Maggio theatre in Florence this month, Carmen avoids being stabbed by stealing Don Jose’s pistol and shooting him (pictured). “It was just the last 30 seconds and we wanted to draw attention to one of the plagues of our society,” the theatre superintendent told the Financial Times. Changes like this are rare, however. In most productions, it ain’t over till the fat lady bleeds all over the stage. This being the case, can a sensitive, caring dad take his daughter to the opera?

Yes of course, for several reasons. First, as “Rigoletto” so vividly illustrates, over-protective parenting does not work. Gilda’s father, Rigoletto, keeps her sequestered for her entire life and allows her out only to go to church. This backfires spectacularly when the Duke of Mantua, a kind of 16th-century Harvey Weinstein, finds her. Having been shielded from the world, she is so naive that she believes everything he tells her when trying to get her into bed.

Second, operas portray so many honey-voiced but duplicitious seducers that they are a useful inoculation against believing anything a young man says under such circumstances. A young female opera fan who meets a real-life Don Giovanni or Lieutenant Pinkerton will know what to say to him. They don’t teach life skills like that in school.

Third, opera gives young girls a valuable sense of historical perspective. Since the best ones were written at least 100 years ago, they brim with old-fashioned sexist assumptions, such as that a woman who loses her virginity is ruined. A modern listener does not adopt these mores; she marvels at how far women have progressed. Asked if she wanted to copy Gilda’s supremely self-sacrificing approach to romance, your correspondent’s daughter replied: “No, the opera made it quite clear that people who act like Gilda end up shanked and in a bag.”

Finally, and most importantly, the music is sublime. As the daughter put it: “I enjoyed the evil minor key and the cheerful flutes. Overall, it was incredibly sweet to the ear.”

Readers may enjoy this short selection of arias that either celebrate male chauvinism or hint at women’s experiences of it:

“ La donna è mobile”
“Women are fickle”. Sung with brio and hypocrisy by the licentious Duke in Rigoletto
«Madamina, il catalogo è questo”
Don Giovanni’s servant lists his master’s conquests, including 1,003 women in Spain
“Près des remparts de Seville”
To avoid prison, Carmen woos a violent, jealous soldier
«Vissi d’arte»
After being told that she must sleep with Baron Scarpia or he will have her lover executed, Tosca is upset. She later stabs him
«Un bel dì vedremo» 
One fine day, Madame Butterfly sings, my sailor-husband will return. He does, but with a new wife

Why marijuana retailers can’t use banks

Banks cannot handle dope money lest they fall foul of federal rules about money laundering

RECREATIONAL marijuana has been legally sold in California since the start of the year. The state treasury estimates that sales in 2018 will reach $7bn. But it will not collect its fair share, because pot taxes, it turns out, must be paid in cash. This makes tax collection “a nightmare”, as the treasury has described it. The predicament of Oregon, where recreational pot became legal in 2015, is a case in point. Sellers who declare sales have had to bring tax payments in cash every month to a guarded, bulletproof site in Salem, the state capital, no matter the distance they must travel. Operating only one such “cash-transaction unit” saves the revenue department money, but it also reduces the number of sellers who declare sales. So why can’t tax payments be made electronically?

Nearly two-thirds of America’s states have legalised pot sales for certain uses, but the federal government still classifies marijuana as a “Schedule 1” drug, on a par with heroin. Banks that handle marijuana money can be charged with money laundering. Pot businesses, therefore, are on the whole stuck working with cash, which causes problems for more than just tax collection. For starters, cash operations are inefficient. To pay its staff of 200 in cash, CannaCraft, a Californian maker of marijuana products, requires four employees who would otherwise be unneeded. Businesses restricted to cash are “targets for assaults” that endanger the public, laments California’s treasury. And as firms accumulate untraceable cash, some will offer bribes for operating permits, says Fred Timpner, head of the Michigan Association of Police. He expects recent arrests for such corruption in his state to be followed by more.

It may sound like a nightmare for law enforcement. But police are generally happy to keep marijuana money out of banks. That is because “asset-forfeiture” laws allow them to seize cash and, astonishingly, pocket much of it for their departments, even if they merely suspect it of including proceeds from crime. (Cars, homes, and other goods can also be taken, but cash requires less paperwork.) The police do not need to prove that the cash is from crime, or charge that a crime has been committed. Police in Detroit now take so much cash from Michigan’s pot dispensaries that their number has fallen from roughly 500 two years ago to about 200 today, says Rick Thompson, owner of the Michigan Cannabis Business Development Group, a conference organiser in Flint. Sometimes the money can be recovered, but this requires a lot of time and money, as well as a judge who can be amenable to the victim of the asset forfeiture. Pot businesses are only “legal” at state levels, so cash from marijuana is by definition illegal federally. Mr Timpner says that police departments broadly respect state laws and will not routinely seize assets from legal marijuana dispensaries except for those wihch have cut corners. But Mr Thompson also points out that Michigan and California have the most “police-friendly” asset-forfeiture laws in the country.

This sort of asset forfeiture is set to continue. Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general, has directed the Department of Justice to craft seizure policies that increase the cops’ take. Few expect the federal government to reclassify pot, or Congress to protect banks that handle marijuana money, as California’s treasury wishes. Some reckon crypto-currencies like bitcoin may help to solve the problem. But they are volatile and, for many, tricky to use. In the absence of transparent law enforcement and sound legislation, states are left to come up with their own solutions. The California treasury’s Cannabis Banking Working Group is advising government agencies to hire armoured couriers for the collection of businesses’ taxes and permit payments.

Crypto-currencies are in a tailspin

Tough regulation in Asia is to blame

THE past month has seen vertiginous swings in the prices of bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. Most of the moves of late have been downwards, with some days seeing falls of over 20%. News from Asia has driven many of the fluctuations. On January 11th South Korea’s justice minister mooted a plan to ban crypto-currency exchanges, triggering a steep sell-off. Faced with public outcry, the government quickly tried to soften its stance. But last week, the finance minister said the ban remained a “live option”, and bitcoin slid even further.

Although east Asia has generally proven a fertile ground for crypto-currencies, the region’s financial regulators have begun to implement widely divergent policies towards them. China once accounted for over 90% of global bitcoin trading. But alarmed at the way crypto-currencies can evade government oversight, last year it banned domestic exchanges. Japan, by contrast, has given crypto-currencies room to run, deeming them assets that can be used for payments and licensing 11 exchanges.

Virtual currencies have bounced back from past sell-offs, but this has been a big one. At one point bitcoin was down about 50% from its highs in December. Believers in virtual currencies say that one of their selling points is freedom from government meddling. In Asia, the cutting edge of the crypto-world, it is governments that are making—and breaking—their fortunes.

A bitter rivalry between Arab states is spilling into Africa

THE rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one side and the Gulf state of Qatar on the other is spilling poison into the Horn of Africa, embittering animosities between half a dozen countries in the region. Several of them have seized an opportunity to benefit from instability in the Arabian peninsula by offering bases. But if Arab conflicts spread, countries in the Horn could be dragged into the fray.

But peripheral countries are being affected, too. According to one recent report, not confirmed by independent sources, Egypt has deployed troops in Eritrea near the latter’s border with Sudan. This followed a bout of bad blood in which Egypt’s government accused Sudan’s of boosting the Brotherhood, which ruled Egypt for a year from 2012 until overthrown by General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, now Egypt’s president. On January 15th Eritrea’s long-serving president, Issaias Afwerki, furiously denied the report, saying that “outright lies” had been “repeated ad nauseam by an assortment of Eritrea’s detractors” led by Qatar and its influential broadcaster, Al Jazeera.

The civil war just across the Red Sea in Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are fighting a Gulf coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is further increasing regional tension. The countries of the Horn of Africa have been called on to take sides; many officially espouse neutrality, yet offer naval and military facilities.

A merry-go-round of island-swapping and port-lending is taking place. Even before the Yemen conflict erupted, Djibouti had earned billions of dollars by providing France (its former colonial master), America and China with military bases. Until a recent row it also hosted the UAE, which now uses a base in the Eritrean port of Assab, close to Djibouti, as a key spot from which to attack Houthi positions in Yemen. Sudan, which has deployed troops as part of the Gulf coalition against the Houthis, has been making friendly noises to Qatar, and has recently enraged Egypt by letting Turkey develop an old Ottoman port at Suakin, on the Red Sea. Egypt, for its part, last year delighted Saudi Arabia by ratifying an agreement that two small uninhabited islands near the Gulf of Aqaba belonged to the kingdom.

Somalia has been particularly friendly to Turkey and leans towards the Islamist camp. But Somaliland, the internationally unrecognised breakaway statelet on the Red Sea coast, which functions far better than the supposed mother country, has done a big deal with the UAE. The Emirates are building another base there and paying for a new road to connect Somaliland’s port of Berbera with landlocked Ethiopia. To confuse matters more, some of Somalia’s federal states, displaying their own quasi-independence, have made deals that seem to flout the foreign policy of the federal capital, Mogadishu. For instance, Somalia’s north-eastern statelet of Puntland last year signed a deal with the UAE to develop its port, Bosaso, to the annoyance of the government in Mogadishu. A hashtag called #HandsOffSomalia has become popular among Somalis prickly about what they see as infringements of their sovereignty.

Ethiopia tries to keep out of the regional spat, though it is still at loggerheads with Egypt over the nearly completed Great Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, which Egypt says will drastically curb the flow of the Nile river. The Ethiopians are cosy with Turkey, a big investor, but have also put out friendly feelers to the UAE. Recently, by way of balance, they let Al Jazeera open an office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

In any event, Ethiopia is likely to oppose anything Eritrea supports: the two countries’ armies still glower at each other across a disputed border, though full-scale fighting ceased in 2000. Meanwhile Eritrea has seized the chance to boost its depleted coffers. Not only has it let the UAE build its base at Assab, by the mouth of the Red Sea. Eritrea is also said to let Israel, which has quietly provided intelligence to Saudi Arabia on Yemen, have discreet use of facilities in the Dahlak archipelago, along with a listening station on an Eritrean mountain. The Houthis in Yemen accuse the Saudis of cosying up to the Israelis—a most heinous crime in some Islamist circles.

Novel 3D printing technique yields high-performance composites

AMBRIDGE, MA – Nature has produced exquisite composite materials—wood, bone, teeth, and shells, for example—that combine light weight and density with desirable mechanical properties such as stiffness, strength and damage tolerance.

Since ancient civilizations first combined straw and mud to form bricks, people have fabricated engineered composites of increasing performance and complexity. But reproducing the exceptional mechanical properties and complex microstructures found in nature has been challenging.

Now, a team of researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has demonstrated a novel 3D printing method that yields unprecedented control of the arrangement of short fibers embedded in polymer matrices. They used this additive manufacturing technique to program fiber orientation within epoxy composites in specified locations, enabling the creation of structural materials that are optimized for strength, stiffness, and damage tolerance.

Their method, referred to as “rotational 3D printing,” could have broad ranging applications. Given the modular nature of their ink designs, many different filler and matrix combinations can be implemented to tailor electrical, optical, or thermal properties of the printed objects.

“Being able to locally control fiber orientation within engineered composites has been a grand challenge,” said the study’s senior author, Jennifer A. Lewis, Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard SEAS. “We can now pattern materials in a hierarchical manner, akin to the way that nature builds.” Lewis is also a Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

The work, described in the journal PNAS, was carried out in the Lewis lab at Harvard. Collaborators included then-postdoctoral fellows Brett Compton (now Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville), and Jordan Raney (now Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania); and visiting PhD student Jochen Mueller from Prof. Kristina Shea’s lab at ETH Zurich.

“Rotational 3D printing can be used to achieve optimal, or near optimal, fiber arrangements at every location in the printed part, resulting in higher strength and stiffness with less material,” Compton said. “Rather than using magnetic or electric fields to orient fibers, we control the flow of the viscous ink itself to impart the desired fiber orientation.”

Compton noted that the team’s nozzle concept could be used on any material extrusion printing method, from fused filament fabrication, to direct ink writing, to large-scale thermoplastic additive manufacturing, and with any filler material, from carbon and glass fibers to metallic or ceramic whiskers and platelets.

The technique allows for the 3D printing of engineered materials that can be spatially programmed to achieve specific performance goals. For example, the orientation of the fibers can be locally optimized to increase the damage tolerance at locations that would be expected to undergo the highest stress during loading, hardening potential failure points.

“One of the exciting things about this work is that it offers a new avenue to produce complex microstructures, and to controllably vary the microstructure from region to region,” Raney said. “More control over structure means more control over the resulting properties, which vastly expands the design space that can be exploited to optimize properties further.»

«Biological composite materials often have remarkable mechanical properties: high stiffness and strength per unit weight and high toughness. One of the outstanding challenges of designing engineering materials inspired by biological composites is control of fiber orientation at small length scales and at the local level,” said Lorna J. Gibson, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, who was not involved in the research. “This remarkable paper from the Lewis group demonstrates a way of doing just that. This represents a huge leap forward in the design of bio-inspired composites.»

The Harvard Office of Technology Development has protected the intellectual property relating to this project.

Previously, Lewis has conducted groundbreaking research in the 3D printing of tissue constructs with vasculature, lithium-ion microbatteries, and the first autonomous, entirely soft robot.

Other contributors to the paper include Thomas Ober from Harvard SEAS and Kristina Shea from ETH Zurich.

The research was supported by the Office of Naval Research and GETTYLAB.

The Hybrid Budgeting / Zombie System

Alright guys, I think we found our happy medium with the cashless society debate 😉

A guy I met at FinCon last year chimed into our convo here, and he officially wins the award for being the most creative, haha… But also super USEFUL too! Because not only does this take the pros of both sides of the equation (cash vs digital), but also solves a slew of those budgeting problems we listed out on Friday too.

Here’s his idea, in response to me wooing people with points if they can convince me cashless is good 😉 Let me know what you think:

Hey J. I will take you up on triple point offer! Actually, I’m going to want 1.5x in brownie points as I’m going to convert you to a hybrid system.

Here it is:

#1. Put your “Regular” expenses on autopay from one bank account. “Regular” = fixed expenses (including savings) in accounting terms.

#2. Deposit enough, but only enough, in that account to cover the Regular expenses that come due until your next paycheck. For most people this will amount to 40-70% of their monthly spending. Consider every dollar deposited to this account spent the moment it is deposited.

#3. Withdraw the remainder of your pay in cash.

#4. Divide the cash up into your “Irregular” expenses in the amounts you would like to spend on each in a perfect month.

#5. Doll out the cash as needed. If you run out of cash in one category, you can decide which area of your spending life needs to take the hit to subsidize the shortfall in that area. (This makes you decide if the overspending is a necessity, was bad planning requiring an adjustment, or just crappy willpower on your part)

#6. Repeat for next paycheck

Here is why this works so well based on the semi-doomsday scenario you wrote about.

  • No electricity to transfer funds for a payment that is due? Not to worry, the bank or vendor can’t tell you haven’t paid because their system is down too!
  • Even if they could tell you haven’t paid, they can’t come get your stuff because they can’t look up where you live, because that too is in some e-database somewhere
  • The utilities can’t shut off your power because it is already off due to the zombies

So there you sit with your little pouch full of cash from which you can buy groceries and toilet paper. Pretty nice. And who knows, since you are one of the few shoppers with cash, the grocery store may be open to huge discounts on their perishables and frozen foods! So enjoy your flame grilled steak and lobster tonight that you bought for less than the mac & cheese was going for.

Upon official notification, I’ll shoot you my brownie point bank account number so you can send my winnings electronically.

Cordially,
Mitchell Walker

Not too bad, sir! One foot in the digital landscape, and one in the cash-is-king other – milking the pros of both, while not screwing yourself by going “all in” on either.

I can dig it… Another perk is that if your cards/accounts get hacked, they only have access to a portion of your money too (which may or may not be there by the time they get in), and if the government is on your tail, they’ll also only have a portion to go on! Leaving you to your own sneaky lifestyle and improprieties! Boom!

So your points are on the way, Mr. Walker, and I salute you for your creativeness.

Although, I must say – I kinda feel like you cheated, as I just stalked your website and saw that this is the same system you’ve been peddling to all your friends and family too! For years now!

And you know what? I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT 🙂 Not only did you figure out a set up that really works for you and your money, but you then took it a step further and decided to share it with the rest of the world too. Thanks for paying it forward!

And in fact, I take back all your brownie points, and in exchange give you something much better: FREE PUBLICITY. Let’s turn this into the “Mitchell” show today and spread around all your goodies – what say you? (I take that as a yes since I can’t hear you… let’s do this!)

>> Introducing, The PouchPlan System! <<

Tired of always being stressed out about money? Worried about the apocalypse and all those empty bank accounts of yours? Worry no more – there’s a budget for that! Introducing, The PouchPlan Budgeting System by Mitchell Walker!

The PouchPlan combines the best of the envelope budgeting system with the advantages of today’s electronic payment abilities, [resulting] in a safer, more reliable, and less active participation requirement for users… It’s core is a naturally intuitive based spreadsheet that has you split your expenses into those which are regular in amount and frequency and those expenses that are not…

The spreadsheet automatically calculates your bank deposits, cash needs, and the timing of both, not just your budgeted amount. Once set up, you are on autopilot. It requires about 5 minutes per paycheck to keep you exactly on target with your plan.

So not only is The PouchPlan a fully-integrated system, but it’s wrapped around a customized SPREADSHEET too! And it’s all yours, free of charge! –> Full Feature PouchPlan Spreadsheet

But that’s not all! Take this spreadsheet, and then throw in a copy of Mitchell’s corresponding book for only $14.95! (Or $3.95 for the ebook) Great for all ages! (But really just adults): The PouchPlan Budget: The Simple Way to Find Hidden Money, Improve Your Life, and Build Wealth

But wait, order now, and get this complimentery Tedx Talk too! An 11 minute value, absolutely yours and guaranteed to hype you up:

RESEARCHERS USE LIGHT TO COAX STEM CELLS TO REPAIR TEETH

Noninvasive laser therapy could radically shift dental treatment and lead to a host of broader clinical applications in regenerative medicine..

A Harvard-led team is the first to demonstrate the ability to use low-power light to trigger stem cells inside the body to regenerate tissue, an advance they reported in Science Translational Medicine.  The research, led by David J. Mooney, Robert P. Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), lays the foundation for a host of clinical applications in restorative dentistry and regenerative medicine more broadly, such as wound healing, bone regeneration, and more.

The team used a low-power laser to trigger human dental stem cells to form dentin, the hard tissue that is similar to bone and makes up the bulk of teeth. What’s more, they outlined the precise molecular mechanism involved, and demonstrated its prowess using multiple laboratory and animal models.

A number of biologically active molecules, such as regulatory proteins called growth factors, can trigger stem cells to differentiate into different cell types. Current regeneration efforts require scientists to isolate stem cells from the body, manipulate them in a laboratory, and return them to the body—efforts that face a host of regulatory and technical hurdles to their clinical translation. But Mooney’s approach is different and, he hopes, easier to get into the hands of practicing clinicians.

“Our treatment modality does not introduce anything new to the body, and lasers are routinely used in medicine and dentistry, so the barriers to clinical translation are low,” said Mooney, who is also a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. “It would be a substantial advance in the field if we can regenerate teeth rather than replace them.”

The team first turned to lead author and dentist Praveen Arany, Ph.D. ’11, who is now an Assistant Clinical Investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At the time of the research, he was a Harvard graduate student and then postdoctoral fellow affiliated with SEAS and the Wyss Institute.

Arany took rodents to the laboratory version of a dentist’s office to drill holes in their molars, treat the tooth pulp that contains adult dental stem cells with low-dose laser treatments, applied temporary caps, and kept the animals comfortable and healthy.  After about 12 weeks, high-resolution x-ray imaging and microscopy confirmed that the laser treatments triggered the enhanced dentin formation.

“It was definitely my first time doing rodent dentistry,” said Arany, who faced several technical challenges in performing oral surgery on such a small scale. The dentin was strikingly similar in composition to normal dentin, but did have slightly different morphological organization. Moreover, the typical reparative dentin bridge seen in human teeth was not as readily apparent in the minute rodent teeth, owing to the technical challenges with the procedure.

“This is one of those rare cases where it would be easier to do this work on a human,” Mooney said.

Next the team performed a series of culture-based experiments to unveil the precise molecular mechanism responsible for the regenerative effects of the laser treatment. It turns out that a ubiquitous regulatory cell protein called transforming growth factor beta-1 (TGF-β1) played a pivotal role in triggering the dental stem cells to grow into dentin. TGF-β1 exists in latent form until activated by any number of molecules.

Here is the chemical domino effect the team confirmed: In a dose-dependent manner, the laser first induced reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are chemically active molecules containing oxygen that play an important role in cellular function. The ROS activated the latent TGF-β1complex which, in turn, differentiated the stem cells into dentin.

Nailing down the mechanism was key because it places on firm scientific footing the decades-old pile of anecdotes about low-level light therapy (LLLT), also known as Photobiomodulation (PBM).

Since the dawn of medical laser use in the late 1960s, doctors have been accumulating anecdotal evidence that low-level light therapy can stimulate all kind of biological processes including rejuvenating skin and stimulating hair growth, among others. But interestingly enough, the same laser can be also be used to ablate skin and remove hair—depending on the way the clinician uses the laser. The clinical effects of low-power lasers have been subtle and largely inconsistent. The new work marks the first time that scientists have gotten to the nub of how low-level laser treatments work on a molecular level, and lays the foundation for controlled treatment protocols.

“The scientific community is actively exploring a host of approaches to using stem cells for tissue regeneration efforts,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Don Ingber, “and Dave and his team have added an innovative, noninvasive and remarkably simple but powerful tool to the toolbox.”

Next Arany aims to take this work to human clinical trials. He is currently working with his colleagues at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), which is one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to outline the requisite safety and efficacy parameters. “We are also excited about expanding these observations to other regenerative applications with other types of stem cells,” he said.

This work was a collaboration between the Wyss Institute, Harvard SEAS, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Leder Human Biology and Translational Medicine, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) and NIH, Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School’s Department of Dermatology, Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology, Boston Children’s Hospital, and New York University School of Medicine.  It was funded by the Wyss Institute, Harvard Presidential Scholarship, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center, NIDCR and NIH.

OXYGEN GAS–FILLED MICROPARTICLES PROVIDE INTRAVENOUS OXYGEN DELIVERY

Rabbits with blocked windpipes have been kept alive for up to 15 minutes without a single breath, after researchers injected oxygen-filled microparticles into the animals’ blood.

Oxygenating the blood by bypassing the lungs in this way could save the lives of people with impaired breathing or obstructed airways, says John Kheir, a cardiologist at the Children’s Hospital Boston in Massachusetts, who led the team. The results are published today in Science Translational Medicine.

The technique has the potential to prevent cardiac arrest and brain injury induced by oxygen deprivation, and to avoid cerebral palsy resulting from a compromised fetal blood supply.

In the past, doctors have tried to treat low levels of oxygen in the blood, or hypoxaemia, and related conditions such as cyanosis, by injecting free oxygen gas directly into the bloodstream. They had varying degrees of success, says Kheir.

Full of air
In the late nineteenth century, for example, US doctor John Harvey Kellogg experimented with oxygen enemas — an idea that has been revived in recent decades in the form of bowel infusers2, says Mervyn Singer, an intensive-care specialist at University College London.

But these methods can be dangerous, because the free oxygen gas can accumulate into larger bubbles and form potentially lethal blockages called pulmonary embolisms.

Injecting oxygen in liquid form would avoid this, but the procedure would have to be done at dangerously low temperatures. The microcapsules used by Kheir and his team get the best of both worlds: they consist of single-layer spherical shells of biological molecules called lipids, each surrounding a small bubble of oxygen gas. The gaseous oxygen is thus encapsulated and suspended in a liquid emulsion, so can’t form larger bubbles.

The particles are injected directly into the bloodstream, where they mingle with circulating red blood cells. The oxygen diffuses into the cells within seconds of contact, says Kheir. “By the time the microparticles get to the lungs, the vast majority of the oxygen has been transferred to the red blood cells,” he says. This distinguishes these microcapsules from the various forms of artificial blood currently in use, which can carry oxygen around the body, but must still receive it from the lungs.

Safe and sound
The lipid foam is safe, says Kheir. “As the oxygen leaves them, the shells buckle and fold, with the lipids breaking off,” he says. The body then reabsorbs the lipids.

Injected rabbits survived for up to 15 minutes without breathing, and had normal blood pressure and heart rate. They showed no indication of heart, lung or liver damage caused by oxygen deprivation, or of pulmonary embolisms.

The microcapsules are easy and cheap to make, says Kheir. They effectively self-assemble when the lipid components are exposed to intense sound waves in an oxygen environment — a process known as sonication.

It is a very sophisticated approach, says Singer. Heart–lung machines can also oxygenate the blood, he notes, as can extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, in which blood is pumped out of the body, oxygenated and then pumped back in. However, these techniques are more suited to surgery or longer-term life support, and would not be much use in emergency situations such as when someone’s windpipe became blocked, says Singer.

Kheir agrees, saying that one of the great advantages of the microparticle approach is the speed at which it works. He thinks that it might be possible to modify the technique to keep subjects alive for as much as 30 minutes, but doubts that it could be pushed much further. Because the microparticles do not recirculate, it would be necessary to continuously infuse fresh ones into the blood, and there are limits to how much extra fluid can be pumped into the bloodstream. “It’s not going to replace the lungs, it just replaces their function for a limited period of time,” says Kheir.

Health and wealth

JEFFREY SACHS, a development economist, writes in his book “The End of Poverty” of a telling phrase by Gro Harlem Brundtland, then the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO). “If you want to get someone’s attention about the health crises in Africa, ‘show them the money’,” she once remarked to him. This is something that governments and international agencies have long known: emphasising that an idea is good for economic growth makes it easier to sell. The WHO has used the same argument to press for more investment in health.

The link between health and income seems pretty uncontroversial. After all, healthy people can work longer and harder than sick people. Healthier children are likely to stay in school longer and learn more, earning more when they enter the workforce. Even across countries the relationship seems clear: those with better health are generally richer, and those that improve their citizens’ health grow faster. So the conclusions of two recent papers that improving life expectancy at birth (a common indicator of better health) can depress income per head for as long as two generations may come as a shock.

Beginning in the 1940s, several medical innovations involving penicillin, streptomycin and DDT made it easier to treat diseases—such as tuberculosis, malaria and yellow fever—that disproportionately affected people in developing countries. Because these ideas originated in the rich world and were spread by organisations such as the WHO, any improvements in health they led to would have been unconnected with prior improvements in the economic circumstances of poor countries.

This international revolution in public health did lead to substantial increases in life expectancy in poor countries by the 1950s. However, the researchers found that income per head actually declined when life expectancy went up and did not recover for up to an astonishing 60 years.

The reason was that increased life expectancy led to a higher population using a limited stock of things like land and capital, thus depressing income per person. Over time, reduced fertility, more investment and the entrepreneurial benefits of having more people could reverse some of this, but the data suggested that reductions in fertility in particular took a long time.

Researchers at Brown University reached a similar conclusion. They used estimates of how various health improvements affected different economic variables, such as schooling, and how schooling in turn affected adult wages, in a model of the economy to work out the broader impact of an increase in life expectancy. Their results looked forward and confirmed what Messrs Acemoglu and Johnson had found by looking back: increased population would more than wipe out any productivity benefits of better health. For the first 30 years after an increase in life expectancy from 40 to 60, income per person would be lower than it would have been if life expectancy had not improved.

Hoyt Bleakley of the University of Chicago thinks these results may be too pessimistic. He argues that the Malthusian spectre of diminishing returns as more people crowd on to the same plot of farm land is less relevant in a fast-urbanising developing world, as well as in one more open to trade and capital flows.

Mr Bleakley also argues that focusing on life expectancy may miss the point. Some health improvements may not lead to a longer life, but may nonetheless make people more productive. Hookworm infection, whose eradication from the American South Mr Bleakley has studied, is a case in point. Getting rid of hookworm disease made children quicker learners in school, and increased their incomes when they started working. However, it did not increase life expectancy since the infection was not fatal and so did not lead to a rise in population, which could have prevented individual benefits from carrying over to the economy as a whole. Policies that improve health without affecting the length of life may well be the ones that have a bigger economic pay-off, and a focus on life expectancy may miss this.

Some of Mr Bleakley’s other work points in this direction. Studying the impact of the eradication of malaria in Colombia, he noted that parts of the country were affected by a species of the malarial parasite called Plasmodium vivax, which led to very poor health but was rarely fatal. The more lethal version, P. falciparum, affected other areas. He found that eliminating P. vivax led to significant gains in human capital and income; eliminating P. falciparum did not.

So even if the researchers at Brown and MIT are correct that increasing life expectancy does not quickly increase income per head, particular health improvements may well do so. Meanwhile, the lesson is that careful analysis should precede any sweeping statements about the economic benefits of specific policies. It may be best to make a case for improving health because it is a good thing in itself, rather than on the basis of presumed economic benefits that may not appear for generations.