Cyber Warfare Is Growing. We Need Rules to Protect Ourselves.

An Urgent Call

Cyber warfare is as real as it gets; the flurry of cyber attacks that made headlines and disrupted industries in 2017 alone attests to that. If it was up to United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the globe would already have international rules to minimize damage to civilians from cyber attacks, or to prevent them altogether.

Guterres delivered his appeal during a speech at the University of Lisbon, his alma mater, on February 19. “Episodes of cyber warfare between states already exist,” he said, according to Reuters.

These attacks can range from accessing otherwise confidential files to hijacking entire network systems. There are also so-called ransomware attacks, where hackers use malware to gain access to a computer and lock the user out until they pay for access. 

How the US Can Fight Russian Cyberattacks?
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A rather silly version of these attacks was recently featured in the TV series Homeland, but the reality could be far worse — like in the case of the WannaCry security hack in May last year, which crippled over 200,000 businesses, governments, and even hospitals. The United States alone has lost some $ 1.3 billion due to cyber crime in 2016, a recent report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) finds.

“What is worse is that there is no regulatory scheme for that type of warfare, it is not clear how the Geneva Convention or international humanitarian law applies to it,” Guterres said.

Indeed, cybersecurity is increasingly becoming a complex issue, with hackers able to commit cyber crimes seemingly without consequence.

What Rules Can(t) Do

Existing cybersecurity regulations, particularly those in the U.S., simply mandate that institutions protect themselves from cyber attacks. These rules are obviously defensive in nature, and as recent incidents have proven, are not quite sufficient enough to bar hackers from accessing computer systems.

It’s difficult to say what kind of rules Guterres has in mind in place of current regulations. He did suggest the role the U.N. could have in all of it: serving as a platform for experts to work with governments “to guarantee a more humane character” to these rules, and to keep the internet as “an instrument in the service of good.”

Experts have suggested that, with internet access considered a basic human right — although not without controversy — cybersecurity should also be a guaranteed right. At the very minimum, they say, the right to privacy should extend online just as it does offline. To the average folk, this perhaps is the most important point to consider: that their access to the internet is assured while, at the same time, they are kept safe and secure.

The difficulty comes in ensuring that these rights are upheld by governments everywhere. Perhaps the best hope for this future is that technology becomes more robust in the face of cyber threats. That, however, can also be quite tricky. In the same way that many see quantum encryption to be a buffer for hackers, it could just as well become a tool for hacking. Cyber warfare could simply end up becoming a race for a better technology.

Guterres’ plea becomes all the more urgent when viewed with an eye for the future: “I am absolutely convinced that, differently from the great battles of the past, which opened with a barrage of artillery or aerial bombardment, the next war will begin with a massive cyber attack to destroy military capacity… and paralyze basic infrastructure,” the U.N. Secretary-General warned.

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We’re Getting Closer to Vaccines to Combat Drug Addiction

In the United States, 115 people die as the result of an opioid drug overdose every day. This statistic, gathered as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) work to understand and combat the current epidemic of opioid drug abuse in America is even more startling when you compare it to figures from the last twenty years or so. In 2016, the number of deaths attributed to an overdose of a drug like heroin or prescription opioid painkillers was five times what it was in 1999.

One of the driving forces behind this epidemic has already been determined: medical professionals over-prescribing opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone, to patients, a practice that is not only completely legal but increasingly common. Many people begin taking the drug legally but become dependent on it. When the prescription runs out and they are no longer able to get it filled, they may try to obtain it illegally. They may be motivated to buy or steal medication to help combat their pain. Some patients end up taking illegal street drugs, like heroin, in an attempt to treat the withdrawals from the opioid medications they were initially prescribed.

Drug addiction is extremely difficult to treat. Addictions that begin as the result of taking legally-prescribed medication, often as a treatment for severe or chronic pain, are even more so. That’s one reason that researchers have been trying to find entirely new avenues for treating drug addiction.

A team of researchers at The Scripps Research Institute recently published their work on the development of a potential vaccine to treat heroin addiction. The idea behind it is fairly intuitive, and in fact, the basic concept has been known to researchers since at least the 1970s.

Like any immunization, an “antiheroin” vaccine would cause a person’s body to create the antibodies that bind to heroin in the blood. Then, it would prevent the drug from crossing the blood-brain barrier, which is what gives the user a high. The theory being that if the drug user no longer felt the effect of the drug, it would be far less likely that they’d relapse.

Other research teams are working on similar vaccines that could be used to treat people addicted to cocaine, or even as a potential treatment for cigarette smokers who are addicted to nicotine. Whether prescription opioid painkillers, heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, nicotine, or even alcohol, the need for new, innovative, ways to address addiction is severe. Given the sheer number of people addicted and dying each year as a result and the distressing lack of available options for treatment, the need for drastic intervention is clear.

“We’re looking for everything and anything,” R. Corey Waller, a practicing addiction specialist and chair of the legislative advocacy committee of the American Society of Addiction Medicine told Chemical and Engineering News “We don’t care if it’s voodoo, unicorns, or rainbows; we’ll take it.”

At present, the biggest challenge is finding the scientific magic that would allow these treatments to work in humans. While they have proven effective in lab animals, the results of the few human clinical trials to date have been disappointing. That was over a decade ago, though, and the failure of those trials gave researchers valuable insight into what needed to be revamped.

It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be able to try again, but those who specialize in substance abuse treatment remain cautiously optimistic. They know, perhaps better than anyone else other than the addicts themselves, just how hard it is to treat drug addiction. “The vaccines seem very promising, and they’re novel, providing a different mechanism to prevent substance abuse,” Kelly E. Dunn, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavior Science at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told Chemical and Engineering News. “But there is still a lot of work to do.”

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Refurbished Organs Could Save Millions on the Transplant List

Organ transplantation is a miracle of modern medicine, but it has a pipeline problem: roughly 20 people die every day while waiting for an organ transplant. Scientists at Harvard Medical School think they may be able to solve that problem by sprucing up old organs from pigs and animals, giving the organs and their new owners alike a new lease on life.

Surgeon Harald Ott and his lab have developed a method that strips animal organs of their cells by washing them in a detergent, leaving behind a tissue scaffold that can be seeded with human stem cells from the patient in need. This would prevent a patient’s body from rejecting the organ, and mean that transplantees would not need to spend their lives on anti-rejection drugs. As the cells grow on this scaffold, the lab uses a bioreactor that pumps the organ, keeping it healthy by stimulating it in the same way it would move in the body.

The team has successfully refurbished lungs, kidneys, hearts, and portions of intestines from rats and pigs to make them human-donor compatible, and then transplanted those organs back into animals. Though the human cells in these transplanted organs made them incompatible with the rats’ and pigs’ bodies, the organs worked — showing significant promise for future human trials. The lab also successfully re-grew muscle within human cadaver hearts that had been similarly stripped of their cells.

A human heart partially re-seeded with human stem cells being cultured in a bioreactor. Image credit: Bernhard Jank, Ott Lab, Center for Regenerative Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital

“Your iPhone breaks, your battery breaks, you switch it out. Medicine, in some ways, is possibly moving in that direction,” Ott told the Wall Street Journal. “I could measure you up, basically, take an organ off a shelf, ideally make it personalized so that you wouldn’t reject it, and then I would implant it into you.”

However, Ott estimates it will be at least a decade before these organs will be ready for clinical trials in humans. In the mean time, Ott is among a wide group of scientists seeking to improve the transplantation process. From better methods of preserving donor organs, to gene editing pig organs for humans, to even bio-printing and growing human organs in the lab, the era of patients waiting endlessly on transplant lists may be coming to an end.

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Scientists Announce New Animal-Human Hybrid Experiment — This Time With Sheep

A team of researchers from Stanford University has produced the latest result in the controversial practice of growing a hybrid species — this time by merging a sheep embryo with human stem cells.

The sheep-human hybrid experiment followed the pioneering creation of a pig-human hybrid by a team at the University of California, Davis back in 2016. The UC Davis research was originally undertaken to determine whether or not human organs could be grown in another species.

The Stanford team chose sheep for their experiment because the animal’s organs are roughly the same size as a human’s. Therefore, in vitro fertilization would be easier with sheep than pigs. Once grown, the human organs could then be used for transplantation purposes and could present a solution to the gap between supply and demand for organ transplants around the world.

“Of course, the ultimate goal of chimeric research is to learn whether we can use stem-cell and gene-editing technologies to generate genetically-matched human tissues and organs, and we are very optimistic that continued work will lead to eventual success,” said Salk Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte last year. Belmonte, an expert in the field of gene-editing, has previously researched the potential of generating human cells and tissues in pigs and cattle, as well as growing a rat pancreas, heart, and eyes in a developing mouse. The research lead by Belmonte was published in the journal Cell last year.

As of yet, there is no published paper detailing the Stanford team’s latest experiment; the work has thus far only been discussed in a presentation at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting which took place in Texas this week.

While the experiment is impressive, it should be noted the researchers have not produced a fully grown sheep, nor did the experiment use a significant amount of human stem cells used. In truth, only 0.01 percent of the cells in the sheep embryo were human. It would take an estimated 1 percent of human stem cells to grow human organs. Additionally, like the pig-human hybrid that came before it, the sheep-human embryos were destroyed after 28 days.

As research around creating hybrids and chimeras continues, we can expect to see more people speak up both for and against the work. It could pose quite the ethical conundrum, but it’s also hard to deny the benefits that could stem from it. In the United States alone, on average 22 people die every day waiting on transplant lists. Having multiple ways to supply organs to those who need them would be a truly life-saving feat.

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Falcon Heavy Could Make Asteroid Mining a Reality

Space Miners

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could facilitate a 21st century Gold Rush of sorts, only instead of heading west, these miners would search for valuable minerals and chemicals in space.

Asteroid Mining: Everything You Need to Know About Off World Resources
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Our solar system is filled with millions of asteroids, rocky worlds ranging in size from just a few feet across to hundreds of miles in diameter. For more than a century, humans have considered the possibility of mining asteroids, but the logistics have proven prohibitive.

The first step — landing on an asteroid — requires a craft that is powerful enough to switch between low-Earth orbit and orbit around the asteroid. According to Martin Elvis, an astronomer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Falcon Heavy could be that craft.

He told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas, that he believes Falcon Heavy has the potential to make asteroid mining a reality by increasing the number of asteroids we could potentially land on by a factor of 15. “Instead of a few hundred, we may have thousands of ore-bearing asteroids available,” said Elvis, according to Gizmodo.

Big Bucks

The potential value of the minerals in these asteroids is staggering.

The iron found in the asteroid 16 Psyche alone is worth an estimated $ 10 quintillion, and according to NASA, if we could extract all of the minerals in the asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the total value would be enough to give every person on Earth about $ 100 billion.

Asteroid mining has the potential to not only make millionaires or even billionaires out of successful miners, it could also facilitate humanity’s colonization of the cosmos.

Some asteroids contain iron, cobalt, titanium, and other materials we could use to construct objects, such as space stations, while in space. Others boast oxygen and water, which astronauts need to survive, while still others contain hydrogen and ammonia, which we could turn into rocket fuel to power our spacecraft.

If Elvis is right and Falcon Heavy can help us tap into these off-world resources, SpaceX’s $ 90 million per launch cost will seem like peanuts to the modern miners with their eyes on asteroids.

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