Saved by the cell

Two recent cases show the progress being made by stem-cell researchers – but their work is still und

In early October, someone - we don't know who - in or around Atlanta, Georgia, became paralysed. This is not exceptional - spinal injuries paralyse 12,000 Americans each year. The victim, however, is exceptional: for this is the first person to receive a treatment that might restore his or her damaged cells. Imagine, then, how that patient feels to know that a nearby judge is considering forcing the American government to stop funding further research into this treatment because it uses embryonic stem cells (ESCs).

There has been so much fuss about ESCs that it is startling to realise that this patient in Atlanta was the first person to get them. But he was not alone for long. On 16 November, doctors in Glasgow announced that they had injected a slightly different kind of stem cell into the brain of a man disabled by a stroke.

The trials will continue. The next few years are their make-or-break time. The bottom line is that stem cells are not yet a panacea. Many scientists are convinced that they could be used to treat injured spines and brains - as well as diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, MS and other conditions. Yet research is under renewed threat after Republican victories in the US midterm elections reinforced opposition to it.

We all start as a clump of identical cells. Their descendants then differentiate into our 200-odd specialised components - nerve cells, blood cells and the rest. But if you lose nerve cells, nearby blood cells do not revert to their embryonic state and re-differentiate into the nerve cells that you need. Very early embryonic cells, however, can become anything. ESCs come from surplus embryos created during in vitro fertilisations - abortions, as far as the US religious right is concerned. They are coaxed to become differentiated cells that can, in theory, be given to those in need: insulin-producing cells for diabetes patients, for example.

Geron Corporation of San Francisco has turned ESCs into a kind of cell that insulates nerves. In most paralysing spinal injuries, says Anna Krassowska of Geron, it is those cells that are damaged. If Geron's cells are injected into rats soon after such an injury, they restore some normal movement. But the trial in Atlanta must first ensure that they are safe in humans: ESCs can become confused and proliferate into an unhelpful mass. So the team is waiting, Krassowska says, to see if the cells behave, before starting on a second patient.

Federal funds

Geron's cells were taken from an embryo created before 2001. On 9 August that year, President George W Bush decreed that federal funding could be used only for work with the 21 lines of ESCs already established. Hundreds of new lines, with useful genetic differences, have since been established - but US scientists could not use federal money to study them.

Funding does exist elsewhere: Glasgow is a case in point, while the London Project to Cure Blindness hopes to treat age-related degeneration of the retina with ESCs by 2012. But the political uncertainties have stifled private investment in stem cells, analysts say, while the sheer scale of US science funding meant that the ruling was a blow. "Federal funding just for work with those 21 permitted cell lines between 2001 and 2009 was still more than the rest [of the funding] put together," Chris Mason of University College London tells me.

In 2009, President Obama lifted the restrictions. But in August this year, a US district court halted ESC research under a budget law banning the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos. If the decision is upheld, government-funded ESC work, even on previously permitted lines, must stop. Plaintiffs in the case charge that ESCs take funding away from research on non-embryonic stem cells, an argument that anti-abortion groups have seized on.

Non-embryonic cells are already used therapeutically. Doctors can culture a patient's own skin or cartilage cells to create grafts or rebuild windpipes. But these are differentiated and are not stem cells. Bone-marrow cells that normally generate blood cells are stem cells, however, and have been transplanted routinely for years. Similar, relatively undifferentiated "adult stem cells" are thought to lurk in most organs, capable of becoming that particular tissue. Such cells in the eye are used to regenerate corneas after chemical burns. In humans, these cells do only so much and there are lots of tissues we can't regenerate. The long-term hope is to induce them to do more - maybe even regenerate lost limbs. This is fine with those who oppose ESCs, but it's also far in the future.

More immediately, cells in the developing human foetus, at a later stage than embryos, are already committed to a certain range of types - skin and nerves, say - but are still flexible. These sorts of cells, from a line derived by ReNeuron, based in Guildford, were injected into the stroke victim's brain in Glasgow. However, their foetal source means they attract the same opposition as ESCs.

Mouse key

Induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs) are another story. These are differentiated cells that have been turned back into something like embryonic cells by reversing four kinds of chemical change in their DNA. It is IPSC research that plaintiffs in the US legal battle claim is unfairly deprived of funding by work on ESCs. Many hope that IPSCs will make ideological opposition to other stem cells moot. "It is understandable that individuals should feel uneasy about the use of foetal cells," says Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent. But IPSCs "have the potential to get around many of these ethical concerns".

The key word is potential: IPSCs are far from ready. Differentiation flips thousands of chemical switches in a cell's DNA. Flipping just one the wrong way can make a normal cell into a cancerous one - and we don't know where all the switches are in any given IPSC, Mason says. "In ESCs, we know where they are." There's also something not quite right about current IPSCs. You can breed a normal-looking mouse from them - but it doesn't live long. Does this make them unsafe for repairing a broken spine? We don't know yet. But for ESCs, we soon will.

The supposed choice between funding foetal or embryonic stem cells and adult ones seems more ideological than scientific. "We need to work on all avenues," Mason says. Future IPSCs or adult stem cells - or even remodelled differentiated cells - may one day work better for certain things than ESCs or foetal cells, especially if they are a patient's own. "But research on ESCs is ten years farther along," Mason says. "We'll lose what we've already learned if we stop working with them."

For now, ECSs and foetal cells present the best hope of success soon. And a few successes, researchers hope, could change everything. If the kind of cells now settling into a spine in Atlanta and a brain in Glasgow can make the lame walk and the blind see, ideological objections might melt away as they did for in vitro fertilisation. How soon that happens depends partly on what happens in a US courtroom.

Debora MacKenzie writes for the New Scientist

The American right to life

When the scientist James Thomson and his team first succeeded in isolating human embryonic stem cells at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1998, they inadvertently triggered a debate that has dominated political discourse in the US. In the index of George W Bush's memoir, the stem-cell controversy receives more mentions than Osama Bin Laden.

Arguments over stem-cell research have emerged as a virulent offshoot of the abortion debate, with pro-life campaigners seizing on stem-cell research as another assault on the sanctity of life. Bush's decision in 2001 to limit such research was challenged repeatedly by Congress, which tried to pass bills opening up research in 2005 and 2007, when the house was under Republican and Democrat control respectively. Despite Barack Obama's reversal of the restrictions, the issue has not been put to bed.

The recent success of the Republican Party in the midterm elections has been powered in part by the pro-life Tea Party movement. It is unlikely that the current Republican-controlled Congress will support the liberalisation of research.

Advocates of stem-cell research have high-profile backers such as the actor Michael J Fox, who has Parkinson's. But they will need to speak loudly to be heard over the resurgent right.

Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.