Yes, you can make a burger out of human stem cells - but you probably wouldn't want to

After the success of the test-tube burger, Michael Brooks answers the question on everyone in the NS offices lips: "Why not make burgers from human stem cells?"

Sometimes the NS’s offices resound with provocative questions. Last week, it was: “Why not make burgers from human stem cells?”

This is not as ridiculous as it might first seem. It would be the pinnacle of ethical carnivorous living, the only way you could eat prime meat with the full, informed consent of the donor.

It wouldn’t be cheap. The price of a burger cultured from human cells would make the €250,000 feed, created by the Maastricht University researcher Mark Post and formally presented on 5 August, look like a bargain. Human stem-cell culture for medical research is done under the most onerous safety restrictions and following strict protocols. Culturing human cells for human consumption would be just as onerous (and thus expensive) as it is for medical research because we would have to make sure there was no chance the cells could become infected by viruses or bacteria.

Eating other animals is safer simply because the pathogens that make them ill do not necessarily make humans ill. Eat your own kind and you risk unleashing all kinds of hell. That was what the BSE crisis was all about. Ingestion of ground-up cattle brains in cheap cattle feed led to an epidemic of the bovine disease. A similar phenomenon was discovered in human beings in the 1950s. The Fore people of Papua New Guinea were eating their deceased relatives in order to absorb their strength and other qualities. Enormous numbers of them contracted kuru, a disease related to BSE, which killed hundreds of them.

Yet many more Fore women and children died of kuru than men (to the point where the women accused the men of using witchcraft to destroy them). Usually, in the traditional funeral rites, the men were given the prime cuts to eat –muscle tissue –while the women and children got the brains and organs, which harboured disease in far more virulent measure. The Fore men were largely fine, so you could argue that cannibalism is not necessarily a health hazard: it’s eating the wrong bits that kills you.

The real show-stopper for the human stem-cell burger is the bit that most of the media coverage glossed over. Growing those stem cells is not a matter of scattering them in a bed of organic grass. The cells are grown in a cocktail of antibiotics and “fetal bovine serum”. This is blood drawn from foetuses that have been removed from slaughtered pregnant cows.

At about £160 (or three cow foetuses, depending on how you want to look at it) a litre, this is the most expensive part of the whole process. It is also the most distasteful. Experiencing poor mouthfeel from a burger is one thing. Knowing a cow foetus has had its heart punctured and sucked dry in order to grow the meat is quite another.

Medical researchers get through roughly half a million litres of fetal bovine serum a year because its hormones and growth factors are so essential to stem-cell growth. There are problems with it, though. The chemicals it contains can skew the outcome of experiments. In addition, the serum is extracted in a slaughterhouse, with no anaesthetic, and research shows that the foetus probably feels pain or discomfort.

The good news is researchers are looking for replacements. Human umbilical-cord blood plasma, for instance, looks like a good candidate. But considering how few of us out there would stomach a dish containing human placenta, you could bet that there’s not much of a market for any of this.

So, yes, you can have a human burger. But we suspect you don’t want one. Not really.

You are what you eat - or at least you might be. 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 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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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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