Stem cell breakthrough opens new medical window

Updated 09 October 2012
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Stem cell breakthrough opens new medical window

THE Nobel Prize-winning discovery of how to reprogram ordinary cells to behave like embryonic stem cells offers a way to skirt around ethical problems with human embryos, but safety concerns make their future use in treating disease uncertain.
While researchers have already applied the scientific breakthroughs of Britain's John Gurdon and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka to study how diseases develop, making such cells into new treatments will involve a lot more checks.
Stem cells act as the body's master cells, providing the source material for all other cells. They could transform medicine by regenerating tissue for diseases ranging from blindness to Parkinson's disease.
Creating embryo-like stem cells without destroying embryos gets round a key controversy by avoiding the need to process embryos left over at fertility clinics — a system that has led to political objections in the United States and elsewhere. Reprogrammed cells — known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells — offer an ethically neutral alternative. They have been a source of intense research since Yamanaka discovered their potential in 2006, building on work that Gurdon did in frogs and tadpoles 40 years earlier.
Recently, however, different research groups have noticed problems with iPS cells, suggesting they may not be as good as embryonic ones. In one study, iPS cells died more quickly and another found multiple genetic mutations, raising concerns that they could cause tumours.
Despite this, Japanese researchers hope to test iPS cells in clinical trials for a form of blindness as early as next year - catching up with recent successful eye trials using embryonic stem cells.
Researchers in the West are generally more wary.
“There is a bit of a divergence between Japan and the rest of the world on this,” Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, told Reuters.
“Scientists in Japan are trying to move very rapidly towards clinical trials of iPS cells, whereas many of us still feel there are a lot of issues to overcome, especially in terms of safety.”
The future potential for reprogrammed cells is that they could be taken from sick people who could have their own "person specific cell replacement" to mend damaged organs or tissues.
But key worries include the fact that iPS technology involves using genes which could also be tumour-inducing in some circumstances and that other as-yet undetected problems might crop up after the new cells have been put into patients.
Gurdon played down such worries and said regulatory authorities and governments should take a step back and let patients assess the potential benefits and risks for themselves.
"If you explain to a patient what can be done, and what might be the downside - then you should let the patient choose. Don't have ethicists or ... doctors or whoever say you may or may not have replacement cells," he told reporters.
Experts agreed that the pioneering work by the two new Nobel laureates had changed the field of stem cell research.
"What's grand in this discovery is that these specialized mature cells can rewind in their development and become stem cells," said Urban Lendahl, chairman of the Nobel awards committee.
Still, many experts believe the true promise of iPS cells is as unique research tools, rather than necessarily forming the basis of new medical therapies.


Ransomware ‘hero’ pleads guilty to US hacking charges

This May 15, 2017, file photo shows British IT expert Marcus Hutchins, branded a hero for slowing down the WannaCry global cyberattack, during an interview in Ilfracombe, England. (AP)
Updated 20 April 2019
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Ransomware ‘hero’ pleads guilty to US hacking charges

  • Hutchins could face up to one year in jail on each of the criminal counts along with financial penalties

WASHINGTON: A British computer security researcher once hailed as a “hero” for helping stem a ransomware outbreak and later accused of creating malware to attack the banking system said Friday he pleaded guilty to US criminal charges.
Marcus Hutchins, whose arrest in 2017 stunned the computer security community, acknowledged in a statement pleading guilty to criminal charges linked to his activity in 2014 and 2015.
“I regret these actions and accept full responsibility for my mistakes,” the 24-year-old Hutchins, known by his alias “MalwareTech,” wrote, noting that the charges related to his activity prior to his work in security.
“Having grown up, I’ve since been using the same skills that I misused several years ago for constructive purposes. I will continue to devote my time to keeping people safe from malware attacks.”
Hutchins in 2017 found a “kill switch” to stem the spread of the devastating WannaCry ransomware outbreak, prompting widespread news reports calling him a hero.
Months later he was arrested after attending the Def Con gathering of computer hackers in Las Vegas.
The case drew fire from critics who argued that researchers often work with computer code that can be deployed for malicious purposes.
A federal indictment unsealed in Wisconsin accused Hutchins and another individual of making and distributing the Kronos “banking Trojan,” a reference to malicious software designed to steal user names and passwords used on online banking sites.
According to the indictment, Hutchins was part of a conspiracy to distribute the hacking tool on so-called dark markets.
He was released on bail while awaiting trial, allowing him to continue working for a security firm. He had maintained his innocence and won support from many others in his profession.
US prosecutors did not immediately respond to an AFP query about the case. But court documents published by the news site ZDNet showed Hutchins could face up to one year in jail on each of the criminal counts along with financial penalties.
Other counts in the indictment were dismissed, according to the court papers.