It’s only natural – let’s make it better

If we can improve, we should.

A bad few weeks, then, for misbehaving chromosomes. First, a Hollywood star draws attention to their errant ways. Next, laboratory scientists find a way to cut them out of the picture. And then, just a day later, camera-wielding researchers announce they can spot the miscreants a mile off.

We can only hope that the IVF pioneer Robert Edwards was given a special preview of the latter research before he died last month. IVF has always been criticised for raising too much hope and too much cash. A round can cost a couple £10,000 yet the chance of it ending in a live birth in the UK is still only 26 per cent. Now, however, a relatively straightforward technique of watching for misbehaving chromosomes might rocket that success rate up to 80 per cent.

The technique sidelines the entirely natural shortcomings of our chromosomes – the packages of DNA inside every cell nucleus. Even in normal circumstances, roughly half of all fertilised eggs carry some kind of abnormality. This predisposes the embryo to problems and usually ends the pregnancy before it begins. But in the sealed glass box where an IVF embryo begins, those chromosomal problems expose themselves in a way that allows doctors to choose the one with the best chance of survival.

The four-day process of turning into a blastocyst, the ball of cells that would normally be implanted in the mother’s womb, takes about six hours longer if there is a chromosomal problem. Using time-lapse photography, you can see which embryos have issues and which are ideal for implantation. The simplicity of the technique would no doubt have brought a smile to Edwards’s face.

He would have been less happy about this month’s press surrounding the breakthrough in human cloning. Scare stories abounded – the Daily Mail went with the headline “New spectre of cloned babies” – and much was made of how it is the same technique as produced Dolly the Sheep, who died prematurely due to abnormalities induced by the cloning process.

The breakthrough is not aimed at making new human beings, however: the idea is to make ill human beings feel like new. First, take a cell from the patient and fuse it with a human egg cell that has had its genetic information removed. The egg then develops into a source of embryonic stem cells that can be turned into bone, blood, heart or liver tissue, or anything else that might be necessary for the patient’s return to health. Such tissues would not be rejected by the immune system, because they would be a perfect match for the patient’s biology.

Until now, the only hope of doing this has been to use chemicals to turn back the clock on a cell, so that it rewinds to the state where it could become any kind of tissue. This chemical approach, however, creates a high chance of inducing abnormalities that elevate the risk of subsequent problems – cancer, for instance.

Cancer comes naturally, too: it has been our constant companion throughout human history. However, this natural phenomenon also suffered a setback this month. The actress Angelina Jolie announced that she had undergone a double mastectomy to counter an inherited genetic fault (on chromosome 17, but there’s a related fault that can appear on chromosome 13) that would almost certainly give her breast cancer. There’s a very strong chance the surgery will have saved her from a premature death, and her courageous broadcasting of the news will put many other women on the path to saving themselves. Take that, nature.

A nucleus being injected from a micropipette into an enucleated oocyte. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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How hackers held the NHS to ransom

NHS staff found their computer screens repleaced by a padlock and a demand for money. Eerily, a junior doctor warned about such an attack days earlier. 

On Friday, doctors at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, logged into their computers, but a strange red screen popped up. Next to a giant padlock, a message said the files on the computer had been encrypted, and would be lost forever unless $300 was sent to a Bitcoin account – a virtual currency that cannot be traced. The price doubled if the money wasn’t sent within six days. Digital clocks were counting down the time.

It was soon revealed Barts Health Trust, which runs the hospital, had been hit by ransomware, a type of malicious software that hijacks computer systems until money is paid. It was one of 48 trusts in England and 13 in Scotland affected, as well as a handful of GP practices. News reports soon broke of companies in other countries hit. It affected 200,000 victims in 150 countries, according to Europol. This included the Russian Interior Ministry, Fedex, Nissan, Vodafone and Telefonica. It is thought to be the biggest outbreak of ransomware in history.

Trusts worked all through the weekend and are now back to business as usual. But the attack revealed how easy it is to bring a hospital to its knees. Patients are rightly questioning if their medical records are safe. Others fear hackers may strike again and attack other vital systems. Defence minister Michael Fallon was forced to confirm that the Trident nuclear submarines could not be hacked.

So how did this happen? The virus, called WannaCry or WannaDecrypt0r, was an old piece of ransomware that had gained a superpower. It had been combined with a tool called EternalBlue which was developed by US National Security Agency spies and dumped on the dark web by a criminal group called Shadow Brokers. Computers become infected with ransomware when somebody clicks on a dodgy link or downloads a booby-trapped PDF, but normally another person has to be fooled for it to harm a different computer. EternalBlue meant the virus could cascade between machines within a network. It could copy itself over and over, moving from one vulnerable computer to the next, spreading like the plague. Experts cannot trace who caused it, whether a criminal gang or just one person in their bedroom hitting "send".

Like a real virus, it had to be quarantined. Trusts had to shut down computers and scan them to make sure they were bug-free. Doctors – not used to writing anything but their signature – had to go back to pen and paper. But no computers meant they couldn’t access appointments, referral letters, blood tests results or X-rays. In some hospitals computer systems controlled the phones and doors. Many declared a major incident, flagging up that they needed help. In Barts Health NHS Trust, ambulances were directed away from three A&E departments and non-urgent operations were cancelled.

The tragedy is that trusts had been warned of such an attack. Dr Krishna Chinthapalli, a junior doctor in London, wrote an eerily premonitory piece in the British Medical Journal just two days earlier telling hospitals they were vulnerable to ransomware hits. Such attacks had increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, he said, with the money being paid to the criminals increased to $1bn, according to the FBI. NHS trusts had been hit before. A third reported a ransomware attack last year, with Imperial College London NHS Trust hit 19 times. None admitted to paying the ransom.

Hospitals had even been warned of this exact virus. It exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows operating systems – but Microsoft had been tipped off about it and raised the red flag in March. It issued a patch – an update which would fix it and stop systems being breached this way. But this patch only worked for its latest operating systems. Around 5 per cent of NHS devices are still running the ancient Windows XP, the equivalent of a three-wheeled car. Microsoft said it would no longer create updates for it two years ago, rendering it obsolete.

There are many reasons why systems weren’t updated. Labour and the Lib Dems were quick to blame the attack on lack of Tory funding for the NHS. It is clear cost was an issue. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday, ex-chief of NHS Digital Kingsley Manning estimated it would take £100m a year to update systems and protect trusts against cyber attacks. Even if that money was granted, there is no guarantee cash-strapped trusts would ringfence it for IT; they may use it to plug holes elsewhere.

Yet even with the money to do so updating systems and applying patches in hospitals is genuinely tricky. There is no NHS-wide computer system – each trust has its own mix of software, evolved due to historical quirk. New software or machines may be coded with specific instructions to help them run. Changing the operating system could stop them working – affecting patient care. While other organisations might have time to do updates, hospital systems have to be up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In small hospitals, it’s a man in a van manually updating each computer.

Some experts believe these are just excuses; that good digital hygiene kept most trusts in the UK safe. "You fix vulnerabilities in computers like you wash your hands after going to the toilet," said Professor Ross Anderson, a security engineering expert at Cambridge University. "If you don't, and patients die, excuses don't work and blame shifting must not be tolerated."

It is not known yet if any patients have died as a result of the attack, but it certainly raised fears about the safety of sensitive medical records. This particular virus got into computer files and encrypted them – turning them into gooble-de-gook and locking doctors out. Systems were breached but there have been no reports of records being extracted. Yet the scale of this attack raises fears in future the NHS could be targeted for the confidential data it holds. "If it’s vulnerable to ransomware in this way, it could be vulnerable to other attacks," said Professor Alan Woodward security expert at the University of Surrey's department of computing.

In the US, there have been examples where ransomware attacks have led to patient data being sucked out, he said. The motivation is not to embarrass people with piles or "out" women who have had an abortion, but because medical information is lucrative. It can be sold to criminals for at least $10, a price 10 times higher than can be earned by selling credit card details. Dossiers with personal identification information – known as "fullz" on the dark web – help crooks commit fraud and carry out scams. The more personal details a conman knows about you the more likely you are to fall for their hustle.

Hospital data is backed up at least hourly and three copies are kept, one offsite, so it is unlikely any medical records or significant amounts of data will have been lost – although the hack will cost the NHS millions in disruption. A British analyst, who tweets under the name Malware Tech, became an unlikely hero after accidentally finding a killswitch to stop the virus replicating. He registered a website, whose presence signalled to the virus it should stop. Yet he admits that a simple tweak of the code would create a new worm able to infect computers.

Experts warn this event could trigger a spate of copycat attacks. Hacker may turn their eyes to other public services. Dr Brian Gladman, a retired Ministry of Defence director, and ex-director of security at Nato, points out that our entire infrastructure, from the national grid, food distribution channels to the railways rely on computer systems. We now face an arms race – and criminals only have to get lucky once.

"We’re going to get more attacks and more attacks and it’s going to go on," he said. "We’ve got to pay more attention to this."

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.

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