By Tanvi Hisaria
A small drop of red liquid blossoms into dark clouds in a little glass dish on 168th Street. Just like that, new hope is born for the thousands of sufferers of pulmonary fibrosis and respiratory tract infections. In a paper published in Nature Cell Biology, Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) recently announced its latest achievement: miniature lung organoids created from stem cells, which can be used to model various fatal lung diseases. Led by Professor Hans-Willem Snoeck, the team at CUMC has succeeded in creating petri dish organoids ( in vitro tissue cultures meant to model properties of an organ) that structurally and functionally mimic select features of the human lung -- all starting from a single stem cell.
Stem cells are found in parts of the body, like bone marrow, and are undifferentiated cells that are not specialized for a particular function. Unlike most other cells in the body, they have the ability to transform into any cell and perform any function. Depending on the conditions in vitro, these stem cells can be transformed into practically any organ. Though they were discovered just three decades ago, stem cells have revolutionized microbiology with their vast potential in disease treatments, organ transplants, cloning and, as in the case of the lung organoids, modeling human diseases.
Currently, stem cells are being used to treat a variety of diseases, one of which is leukemia. In this treatment, the bone marrow of the patient is replaced by stem cells from the bone marrow of a healthy donor. If the transplant is successful, these stem cells produce healthy white blood cells to replace the cancerous cells. While this therapy focuses on directly transplanting stem cells to treat diseases, the lung organoids highlight another important use of stem cells: creating accurate models to study diseases and their potential cures. While lung organoids are not meant to replace unhealthy lungs in patients, they provide a prototype that can be infected with viruses, observed for adverse reactions, and then used to test drugs.
These organoids are the first of their kind to have the branching airway and alveolar structures found in human lungs. Their similarity was further evidenced by the reaction of these organoids when infected with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus that infects thousands of children each year. When infected with this virus, the organoids demonstrated swelling and shedding of infected cells into the organoid lumen, or cavity), which is exactly how a human lung reacts to RSV. Furthermore, when mutated gene HPS (the cause of pulmonary lung fibrosis,) was introduced in the organoids, there was an accumulation of extracellular matrix and mesenchymal cells , which is again how a human lung would react. These tests of infection with diseases proved that these organoids were similar to human lungs in terms of both structure and function.
Though these lung organoids are some of the most sophisticated and accurate models of their kind, they are by no means the only human organoids created. Over the past few years, scientists around the globe have been trying to create an “organoid bank” -- a repository of all human organoids created. As of late 2017, these include miniature kidneys, livers, stomachs, pituitary glands, intestines, pancreas and even brains! Of course, these models aren’t perfect; they often look nothing like the human organ, and may only mimic parts of the real organ’s functionality. Nonetheless, they serve as promising tools to study their human counterparts, and scientists are continuing to improve their accuracy.
The significance of breakthroughs like this cannot be emphasized enough. By removing the necessity of observing actual human lungs to study the development of the disease, these organoids not only speed up the process of drug development and treatment, but also reduce the necessity of human trials. Scientists hope to eventually have similar models for all important organs in the body, which will greatly enhance our understanding of how each part of the body works in a healthy state, as well as how different pathogens disrupt this normal functioning. These models thereby provide an ethical method of conducting such experiments (since we obviously cannot knowingly infect human beings with these pathogens, nor remove their lungs to study them in a lab), which accelerates the rate at which scientists can discover more about the diseases. All things considered, these mini lungs may have a giant impact on not only stem cell research, but human health as a whole.
Tanvi is a freshman in Columbia College intending to major in Mathematics. She is a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review.
 Buguliskis, Ph.D. Jeffrey S. "Lung Mini-Organ Is Breath of Fresh Air for 3D Cell Culture." GEN. May 15, 2017. Accessed November 09, 2017. https://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/lung-mini-organ-is-breath-of-fresh-air-for-3d-cell-culture/81254351.
 "New Lung." Columbia University Medical Center. May 11, 2017. Accessed November 09, 2017. http://newsroom.cumc.columbia.edu/blog/2017/05/11/a-new-3d-model-for-lung-disease-made-from-stem-cells/.
 "Stem Cell Basics I." National Institutes of Health. Accessed November 09, 2017. https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm.
By Sophia Ahmed
Idyllic tree-lightings, holiday breaks, and gently-falling snow all come along with December in New York City. But as wintertime approaches, so do exams, campus viruses, and seasonal slumps. With increasing stress and colder temperatures, late night trips to JJ’s to seek comfort food may become more frequent. As you start to fill your thermoses with coffee and hot chocolate instead of ice water, it is important to keep track of your dietary habits for both your mental and physical health. Maintaining a balanced diet that includes important vitamins and minerals is essential to bolstering cellular function and improving everyday energy and productivity during the cold winter months.
Flu season peaks in December and lasts until the end of February, making it especially important for your immune system to remain healthy throughout the winter months. One way to help strengthen your immune system is by maintaining healthy Vitamin C and zinc levels. Low Vitamin C could be due to insufficient consumption of Vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits or increased oxidative stress on our cells, which could be a result of sleep deprivation. Vitamin C is a common antioxidant that can improve cellular health and efficiency by lessening the buildup of free radicals in cells. During an immune response, chemicals called cytokines allow cells to communicate with each other. The presence of free radicals, extremely reactive species formed during energy-making processes, disrupts this communication. Higher Vitamin C intake decreases the amount of free radicals, thus facilitating effective cytokine communication and maintaining immune system efficiency.
Along with Vitamin C, zinc can also boost your immune system. According to researchers from Wayne State University School of Medicine, zinc helps prevent excess inflammation during an immune response. While inflammation typically occurs as part of your body’s response to a bacteria or virus, it can also exacerbate symptoms, causing a sore throat, stuffy nose, and cough. While zinc does not completely prevent such symptoms, it does mitigate excessive inflammation. Although the process by which zinc controls an immune response is not fully understood, researchers have found that zinc helps inhibit the NF-κB protein pathway, which normally induces the expression of genes that cause inflammation. So, while zinc may not be able to treat diseases, it could potentially be used to shorten their duration. If you’re looking to increase the amount of zinc in your diet, foods such as lamb, mushrooms, and cashews all have high zinc content.
Besides depleting the immune cells inside your body, winter’s effects are also evident externally in dry hair and brittle toenails. Making sure that you consume enough Vitamin E and Vitamin A can help prevent these visible effects of colder weather. A study by Dr. Paul McNeil of the Medical College of Georgia, found that the antioxidant Vitamin E helps membranes regenerate and fend against free radicals. By supporting healthier follicles, these processes stimulate hair and nail growth. Vitamin A includes the organic compounds retinal, retinol, and retinoic acid, all of which aid in skin cell production, and thus prevent drying and aging. Vitamin A becomes especially important if you find you are not drinking enough water, as proper hydration is essential for skin health. Both Vitamins A and E are fat-soluble, meaning that they can be stored in the body and are not required in large amounts. They can both be found in winter vegetables like squash and broccoli.
Maintaining your energy levels can be just as difficult as keeping your skin healthy during winter. Shorter days and a worse diet, combined with too many responsibilities, can drain your energy during the long season. Nevertheless, Vitamin D and iron supplements may be able to boost those energy levels. According to a study from Newcastle University, muscle fatigue is common among Vitamin D-deficient patients. When muscle cells containing numerous mitochondria are replenished with Vitamin D, they perform more effectively, indicating a link between vitamin D and mitochondrial function.
While it is common to hear about Vitamin D deficiency, iron deficiency is actually the most common nutritional deficiency according to the Center for Disease Control. Iron is involved in major energy generating processes, including the production of hemoglobin and red blood cells. Since iron contributes to the synthesis of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which transport oxygen, iron deficiencies interfere with oxygen delivery to vital organs. Iron rich foods, including eggs and cereals, will energize you and improve attention span and productivity.
Integrating nutritious foods like broccoli and eggs into your diet seems easy enough, but comfort foods may begin to look more attractive in the winter. If you don’t think you’re doing a good job in maintaining a balanced diet, it may be useful to take a trip to Health Services to find out if you should take any dietary supplements to help bolster immune function and energy. Maintaining healthy levels of these nutrients can help your alertness, sleep schedule, and efficiency. All of the mentioned nutrients come in a pill supplement form, with different dosages that suit a variety of needs. While the above suggestions are in no way professional recommendations, they are good metrics to keep track of your health in the winter. It’s important to maintain a balanced diet during the winter because of its role in cellular function and, more importantly, how that cellular function affects you.
Sophia is a freshman in Columbia College planning to major in sustainable development. She is a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review.
By Kendra Zhong
After suffering a stroke in 2009, Jim Gass was confronted with a flaccid left arm and weak left leg. He then decided to take what many would consider a dream vacation: traveling to various countries in North America, South America, and Asia. However, Gass wasn’t chasing tourist traps—he was chasing promises of recovery from his stroke. The apparent successes of several specialized medical clinics in Mexico, Argentina, and China gave Gass hope that treatment via stem cell implantation therapy would cure him. Unfortunately for Gass, he became further paralyzed from the neck down.
Despite continuous efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to shut down facilities administering scientifically unverified and potentially dangerous treatments leading to more cases like Jim’s, hundreds of stem cell clinics still exist in the United States . At the same time, research on stem cell transplantation has come to the forefront of science for its promising therapeutic potential.
Today, Columbia University is exploring the vast possibilities of stem cells. It has recently established the Jerry and Emily Spiegel Laboratory for research on brain stem cell replacement therapy in addition to ongoing stem cell transplant treatments at the medical center. The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at CUMC currently conducts autologous and allogeneic stem cell transplants, the former referring to the process of collecting stem cells from the patient’s blood and the latter relying on a donor’s stem cells, both of which can be used to grow new bone marrow tissue in the patient. HICCC has also shown dedication to improving the safety of such procedures. Its research focuses particularly on therapeutic combatants against graft-versus-host disease, a prevalent and life-threatening complication following allogeneic transplantation, in which the patient’s immune system rejects the “foreign” bone marrow and effectively works to destroy it.
Other institutions are also recognizing the promising results of stem cell treatment, but only if safe implementation is realized. In a recent clinical trial conducted by researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, eighteen participants who had suffered a stroke six months to three years prior received injections of adult human stem cells into the brain. While more than thirteen patients developed short-term headaches after the procedure, no long-term side effects were observed. The researchers also found a significant overall improvement on the motor-function component of the Fugl-Meyer Assessment, the standardized index used to assess recovery of stroke victims, at six and twelve months after injection. The stem cells had apparently increased patient mobility. These results important due to their consistency amongst all the trial participants, regardless of the severity of stroke, and equal application to an older demographic (the average age of the patients was 61). These encouraging results have inspired the organization to devise a subsequent trial with a greater number of participants.
Their research also aims to find new and improved methods for bone marrow transplantation. Patients’ blood stem cells must be killed before transplantation of new stem cells, but current treatments using chemotherapy or radiation therapy to kill existing stem cells are toxic to the liver, reproductive tissues, and brain, making stem cell transplants extremely dangerous. Yet, researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine recently found that attaching antibodies to c-kit and CD47—two marker proteins of blood stem cells—allowed macrophages to target and destroy the blood stem cells in mice. This technique makes blood stem cell implants both safer and easier to execute.
However, as research progresses towards realizing promising treatments, the cost of current stem cell clinic practices push back—Mr. Gass paid almost $300,000 for his injections just a few years ago. Other transplantation treatments have been estimated to cost upwards of $800,000. Thus, as stem cell transplants become more advanced, safe, and common in the US, the next criteria to consider should be practical applicability and accessibility.
Kendra is a Columbia College freshman studying biology and chemistry. She’s a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review.
By Sophia Ahmed
Hurricane Katrina’s Category 5 winds killed nearly 2,000 people when the storm made landfall in August 2005, and Hurricane Harvey damaged an estimated 203,000 homes. Combined, these hurricanes caused destruction that totaled over 400 billion U.S. dollars. Needless to say, hurricanes cause extensive damage to families and infrastructure when their winds rip through the area; however, the effects of these storms ripple through communities long after the winds die off. In fact, the aftermath of a hurricane can cause as much damage as the hurricane itself. Longstanding public health issues caused by sewage, bacteria, chemicals, and mold create an even more horrific image of a hurricane, one that remains long after clean-up crews finish their jobs.
After hurricanes ravage an area, raw sewage accumulates and can be left untreated. This sewage overflow is caused in two different ways: through infrastructure issues and through system outages. When a hurricane’s heavy rains fall, stormwater can flow into sanitary sewers, causing a backup due to old sewage infrastructure. In severe cases, the sewage overflows into buildings and the outside environment. Piping flaws aren’t the only cause of sewage overflow, though: when the power goes out, electronic sewage pumps can also shut down and subsequently cause overflow. For instance, due to the old wiring of New York’s sewage system, ten out of the city’s fourteen area plants were damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Sewage overflow can cause a variety of issues, including water contamination, which bars people from drinking tap water for weeks after a hurricane. It also induces increased exposure to bacteria—another contaminant that remains after a hurricane dies off.
The bacteria coming from sewage includes E. coli and other pathogenic organisms. While these conditions are usually treatable, pharmacies and hospitals are often either damaged or overwhelmed after hurricanes, making treatment more difficult and disease more rampant. Another bacterial danger arises when people attempt to escape the floodwaters of a hurricane. Open cuts, if exposed to contaminated water, can lead to tetanus, skin rashes, and even infection by flesh-eating pathogens like Vibrio. Though Vibrio is an extreme case and one of the only deadly contaminants that can arise from hurricanes, non-lethal pathogens should not be overlooked. When left untreated, these conditions can have long-lasting effects, inhibiting a person’s ability to rebuild their lives after a hurricane.
Along with biological contaminants, hurricanes can release chemical contaminants that exacerbate long-term devastation. Texas is home to many prominent chemical companies and oil refineries, including Exxon Mobil. When Harvey blew through Houston, a year’s worth of chemical pollutants was released into the environment within weeks because of equipment malfunctions and power outages. Chemicals don’t even have to be spilled en masse to cause extensive damage. Residents living by the chemical company Valero in Texas were exposed to 325 parts per billion of a carcinogen called benzene, a concentration that exceeds multiple state standards. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, amounts only about double of that recorded in Texas can cause dizziness and headache in fifteen minutes. Chemicals can also catch fire if environmental conditions like temperature and pressure are altered by a hurricane; the resulting smoke can further spread the lethal effects of chemicals.
While chemical spills are tightly monitored, mold growth is perhaps the most overlooked, yet harmful, long-term remnant of a hurricane. Because people are often evacuated from their homes for weeks after a hurricane, sitting floodwater can soak into the walls and floors of houses. This creates an ideal environment for mold growth. Mold can cause eye and sinus irritations similar to that of a cold. While these symptoms may seem mild, if the mold goes unnoticed, such symptoms will remain for long periods of time. Mold can also induce asthma, especially in children, which can be a lifelong condition. People with especially sensitive mold allergies may even have severe breathing difficulties in a mold-infested environment. Hurricanes can cause mold in offices, homes, schools, or virtually any kind of building, allowing people little escape from its effects. Additionally, according to a study by Dr. Ginger Chew from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, buildings don’t even have to be completely flooded to experience mold growth. A study conducted after Hurricane Katrina found that partial water exposure in conjunction with a humid hurricane aftermath can also lead to ideal conditions for mold growth. This means that after residents return to their homes and offices, even if the buildings weren’t completely flooded, they may be unknowingly exposing themselves to mold and all of the symptoms associated with it.
Hurricanes release a dangerous number of biological and chemical contaminants into our environment, but there is still hope for a safe recovery from these persisting effects. Experts agree that there is a two-pronged approach to minimizing the long-term consequences of hurricanes. The first is to combat climate change. While scientists cannot prove that climate change caused hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, they can say that climate change contributed to their strength and subsequent damage. Hurricanes use heat to fuel their wallop; the temperature of the Eastern Atlantic Oceans was an average of 0.5-1 degrees Celsius warmer this summer. This fits with scientists’ predictions about the direct relationship between rising temperatures with both the frequency and strength of hurricanes.
The second prong, relayed by Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, when speaking to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, concerns rebuilding infrastructure after a hurricane so that it can better withstand future hurricanes and other natural disasters. According to Gerrard, recovery efforts should not be focused on rebuilding infrastructure in the same ways and in the same places as they were before. Instead, the government should reevaluate building materials and set new building standards so that buildings can more effectively handle hurricanes. In addition, new municipal systems, including power grids and sewage plants, should be built so that they can handle high amounts of water and wind.
Executive director of The Earth Institute, Steve Cohen, emphasizes that we must learn from these natural disasters and prepare for future instances. The two methods above can aid in minimizing the destruction mentioned in this article. Better sewage infrastructure can obviously help decrease the likelihood and severity of sewage overflows, which will subsequently decrease the amount of pathogens in the post-hurricane environment. If the locations and facilities of the chemical plants are improved with higher state standards, the chances of chemical spills can also decrease. Finally, if drainage systems are built to be more effective and roofs more hurricane-proof, homes and offices could become more water-resistant, which would prevent the buildup of mold. The importance of preparedness is perhaps the most crucial thing that we can learn from these 2017 hurricanes because even if we can’t stop them, we can overcome them.
Sophia is a freshman in Columbia College planning to major in sustainable development. She is a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review.
By Sean Harris
Everyday observations show us that people exhibit a wide variety of personality traits; some people are outgoing, some creative, and others nurturing. This variation is not trivial, as personality deeply affects the way people think and act. Given the far-reaching consequences of personality, it’s important to investigate why people have certain traits and thus behave in certain ways. We know evolution has molded our bodies over millions of years, but has natural selection similarly molded human personality and behavior? While we may believe ourselves to be products of our wills and experiences, research suggests that the ways we think and act are defined by biological necessity.
The Big Five System is the most common taxonomy for organizing the diverse array of human personalities. Specifically, it places people on a spectrum of five primary traits that consistently emerge when analyzing survey data. Personality Traits by Cambridge University Press defines the Big Five traits along these lines:
Openness - open to experience. creative, preference for novelty and ideas
Conscientiousness - organized, ordered, deliberate
Extraversion - assertive, socially active, excitable
Agreeableness - altruistic, trustful, compassionate
Neuroticism - anxious, impulsive, hostile
The nature of the five traits has been studied thoroughly. One paper in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research found correlations between the Big Five traits and political beliefs. For example, those high in conscientiousness, which is generally defined by sensitivity to hierarchy and order, exhibit greater right-wing authoritarianism. Openness, on the other hand, is linked to risky behavior and associated with being politically informed. In contrast, extroverts are more inclined to participate in social forms of political engagement, such as attending rallies. While these correlations should not be misconstrued as causal, they suggest that social traits, in aggregate, can have wide-ranging effects on society.
With this implication in mind, the natural follow-up for scientists was whether personality traits were products of evolution or simply cultural constructs. To answer this question, scientists have studied the behavior of animals, under the assumption that their behavior is purely biological and unaffected by social pressures. For example, a study in Frontiers of Ecology and Evolution found that social insects like wasps and bees show increased colony-wide aggression as the population size increases. Meanwhile, newer, less-developed colonies requiring fewer resources are generally shyer and less prone to risky behavior. A similar trend has been observed in rainbow fish, which demonstrate wariness and distrust when the environment hosts predators, but lose these nervous qualities once predatory pressure is removed. Such evidence suggests that neuroticism is highly costly and only selected naturally when the environment demands it. In this case, personality seems to be a dynamic response to an environmental stimulus, a means to enhance survival.
Another analysis by Daniel Nettle at the University of Newcastle on human and animal personality also demonstrates the effect of evolution on behavior. The paper combines decades of research into a holistic perspective on the specific benefits and costs of each of the Big Five traits. Extraversion increases mating success and encourages exploration of the surrounding environment at the cost of physical risk and familial stability. Neuroticism can help protect individuals from predators, as demonstrated in animals, but the necessary stress and anxiety needed to keep one alert can be costly. Agreeable people can foster stronger social bonds with others, but the urge to assist can put them at risk of falling prey to exploitation. Finally, conscientiousness can align an organism with long-term goals at the expense of being too rigid to embrace short term opportunities.
Diversity in personality thus constitutes variation in decision-making by providing frameworks for how and when to use one’s resources. This variation in resource utilization is what has allowed natural selection to work on the human mind (or at least human-like minds) for around 2.5 million years. However, Nettle clarifies that no single dimension of human personality is evolutionarily favorable in all cases. A personality trait that is helpful in one instance may be harmful in another. For example, it sometimes pays to stay at home and rear children, but at other times wandering off might be advantageous to fend off predators or relocate to new land.
This lack of a single “optimal” personality configuration ensures a diverse array of personalities in the population, and this diversity is highly beneficial. For example, a population without conscientious organisms would fail to account for long-term planning or social hierarchy, while a population without extraverted organisms would be unable to explore new opportunities or take risks. Diversity of personality also provides stability. In the same way that a genetically homogenous population is vulnerable to changes in environment, a population that lacks diversity in personality could easily collapse with even a slight alteration of environmental stresses.
Nettle also points out how some traits manifest in radically different ways today than they would have in nature. Neuroticism excels at keeping one alert in the wilderness. However, in our relatively safe towns and cities, only the heavy costs of stress and anxiety are realized. Similarly, those high in extraversion and openness may not integrate well with our highly-ordered society. In fact, both drug users and criminals tend to score higher in these traits.
These studies suggest that personality may be more deeply rooted in biology and our evolution than ever predicted. Despite our subjective belief that we are the masters of our own minds, the influence of evolution on personality suggests that the ancient forces of natural selection dictate the subliminal and emotional ways in which we and all other organisms act. Although there are competing arguments, researchers agree that we should further investigate the fundamental forces behind our personalities and actions.
Sean is a freshman in Columbia College. He is a staff writer for Columbia Science Review and plans to major in physics.
By Manasi Sharma
Though the transition from weekend to weekday brings an onslaught of cold, dreary panic to most fall Monday mornings here in New York, the morning of Monday October 16, 2017 could not have been more different. The excitement in the air was palpable as members of Columbia’s scientific community—students, professors, and visitors alike—waited with bated breath for the announcement of the discovery of the fifth gravitational wave ever detected, named GW170817. To most of us, this observation borders on the mundane; after all, gravitational waves have already been detected four times. But what actually makes this particular discovery so significant? How much more can it tell us?
Before we dive in, let’s run through the basics of gravitational waves. Imagine how a ball dropped in a pond disturbs the water, creating ripples around it. Similarly, powerful interactions between massive objects create gravitational waves, which are essentially ripples in the fabric of spacetime. They were first detected in the fall of 2015 by the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Scientific Collaboration, marking the dawn of gravitational wave astronomy. Since then, there have been four more detections of gravitational waves.
Most gravitational waves are caused by binary black holes, which are pairs of rotating regions of spacetime that are so massive and dense that nothing can escape them, including light. However, other objects, such as binary neutron star pairs, can also generate gravitational waves. Neutron stars are the remnants of a supernova (when a massive star blows up towards the end of its life). Because they are incredibly dense—one teaspoon would weigh as much as a mountain—pairs of neutron stars have the potential to significantly warp spacetime. However, neutron stars are always less massive than black holes; in fact, the mass of a neutron star is at most triple the mass of the Sun.
What makes this fifth gravitational wave so significant is its origin. While previous detections have been caused by binary black holes, this one stemmed from a binary neutron star pair. We know that the detected signal originated from a binary neutron star and not a binary black hole since both objects in the pair appear to have similar masses to other neutron stars. Moreover, the signal itself was spread out over a much longer period of time than in previous detections, suggesting that it was produced by a source different than binary black holes. Because of its unique origin, this new binary neutron star signal—the loudest signal detected yet—can tell us a great deal about systems and entities we haven’t studied.
Typically, it is very difficult for scientists to determine where a gravitational wave signal originates in the universe. In fact, when gravitational waves were first discovered, astronomers were only able to narrow down a wave’s origin to an area in the sky around three thousand times the area of the full moon. However, for the first time, this fifth signal was simultaneously observed in three different LIGO locations: Louisiana, Washington, and Italy. By analyzing the overlap between each location's specific field of observation in the sky, scientists were able to pinpoint a small location containing the signal to a possible range just five percent the size of that of the first detection. This detection is only the first step toward the increasingly accurate localization of gravitational wave signals.
However, the most important implication of this discovery stems from the fact that this fifth signal was simultaneously observed using gamma ray detectors. Scientists have long theorized that the creation of a binary neutron star pair produces a short, explosive burst of gamma rays, high energy electromagnetic waves produced only by the most powerful phenomena in the universe. Because the gravitational wave was observed by the gamma ray detectors at approximately the same time and location in the sky as the LIGO observatories, this fifth signal has provided the first direct evidence for this amazing cosmic phenomenon.
On a deeper level, this unprecedented joint observation marks the beginning of a beautiful and crucial collaboration between electromagnetic and gravitational wave astronomy. In doing so, it opens a multitude of doors to insights in astrophysical realms, such as compact binary systems ( e.g. pairs of black holes and neutron stars), the nature of gravitation itself, and future discoveries of the unknown. In many ways, this discovery demonstrates all that is wonderful about one of the most fundamental values of science—collaboration—and what it can do for the expansion of knowledge.
All in all, GW170817 is a gem in the array of gravitational wave detections, and it shows the sheer potential that gravitational wave astronomy has to grow and evolve as a field, as well as the potential it has to shock us. Keep your eyes and ears open for detections in this new era of discovery!
Manasi is a Columbia College freshman studying Physics and Computer Science. She is a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review.
By Audrey Lee
When you hear the term “Internet of things” (IoT), what is the first device that comes to mind? You might picture the smartphone you’ve come to heavily rely on, a fitness tracker that monitors your activity throughout the day, or even a smart home that is energy efficient. But even something as personal as an implantable medical device (such as an insulin pump or pacemaker) is becoming part of a rapidly growing number of network-connected devices.
We’re becoming more connected with the internet than ever before. Over the past two decades, computer software and internet connectivity capabilities have been incorporated into planes, cars, homes, and cities to improve the ways that we live and interact with the world around us. These devices have been influencing developments in major industries such as business and healthcare. In the latter case, they have driven advancements in technologies from medical imaging to wearable technologies.
According to some experts, by 2020 there will be over 200 billion connected things--an astounding 26 IoT objects for every human being on Earth! But as we grow more dependent on technology in our daily lives, we also become more vulnerable if the technology should fail. Just like computers connected to the internet, IoT devices are susceptible to security breaches. These attacks can be particularly scary, especially when they occur on medical devices.
For instance, think about what might happen if you rely on an insulin pump to manage diabetes. If a security breach compromises the functions of your pump, then your very life would be at risk. This hypothetical situation is actually very real: in 2016, Johnson & Johnson released a warning to patients about the vulnerability of one of its insulin pumps to cyber attacks. It was found that hackers could potentially exploit the device to deliver an overdose of insulin, resulting in life-threateningly low blood sugar. Although the FDA knows of no cases yet where hackers have exploited these devices to harm patients, these vulnerabilities still have (rightfully) raised considerable alarm.
Real cases of identity theft, ransomware, and targeted hacking have proven healthcare data and devices to be vulnerable. In 2016, a hacker seized control of the computer systems at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, forcing the hospital to pay $17,000 ransom in bitcoin. Furthermore, in the case of targeted nation-state hacking, it has been shown that personal medical devices could be compromised to deliver lethal dosages to users. This topic was of great concern when former Vice President Dick Cheney had a cardiac pacemaker implanted. Cheney’s doctors needed to disable the wireless capability of his device because they feared someone could breach his pacemaker and deliver a deadly shock to his heart. The possibility of this attack was not only a risk to Cheney’s life but also a topic of concern that left an entire nation on edge—and it highlighted the danger that cyberattacks pose to the healthcare industry.
Cybersecurity is the protection of computer systems from attack, damage, or unauthorized access. It takes center stage in protecting us from the numerous and perilous risks that IoT devices possess. Unfortunately, the current state of cybersecurity in healthcare and medical devices is far from reassuring. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Task Force member Josh Corman, “What we consistently encountered was a strategic pitfall in cybersecurity environment. Healthcare cybersecurity is in critical condition.” In 2015, the healthcare industry experienced more breaches from cyberattacks than any other industry, emphasizing the grave danger cyberattacks pose—as well as the shortage of protection against them.
Despite the direness of the situation, many people are unaware of the facts on cybersecurity threats to medical devices. This lack of knowledge is a key obstacle for patients and healthcare workers who wish to push for change. For instance, misconceptions that the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) conducts premarket tests of medical devices for cybersecurity for approval are false; device security testing is the responsibility of the medical product manufacturer. Since there are no regulations to enforce the security testing of medical devices, it becomes unclear whether the devices we receive as patients are truly safe to use. Moreover, many believe that cybercriminals only target large hospitals, but the HHS has found that all healthcare organizations are being targeted regardless of their size. This revelation is especially concerning due to the fact that three out of four hospitals—that is, the vast majority—do not have designated security persons for medical data. The misconceptions about cybersecurity in healthcare are driving a systemic and dangerous lack of action and regulation by institutions to protect patients.
On a positive note, regulatory agencies and governments have begun to address the deficiencies in the state of cybersecurity. In order to address the security needs of the healthcare industry, the Health Care Industry Task Force released a report to Congress in June 2017 outlining the flaws and necessary action items for improvement. Present challenges include the severe deficit of security personnel, equipment running on outdated operating systems, and unsecured personal medical devices that are presently used by patients. The Task Force set forth six imperatives along with recommendations for the healthcare industry to develop the security of medical devices and health IT, and improve knowledge of this issue through education initiatives. As a whole, this report addressed significant concerns and established an ongoing public-private forum to enhance protections for both the healthcare industry and its patients.
Along the same lines, the FDA has organized public workshops and formed partnerships to help protect the public health from cybersecurity vulnerabilities. It has also published guidelines and recommendations for medical device manufacturers and healthcare facilities to be more vigilant about identifying risks and hazards related to their devices, including cybersecurity. As of this year, the FDA has partnered with the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen medical device cybersecurity through a public workshop. The recent outbreak of activity by these organizations to address these pressing issues is reassuring for the future of the IoT.
All said, it is important to keep in mind that there is much left to be done to protect the healthcare industry. Many medical devices on the market are still vulnerable to existing cyber threats, and existing devices will still be vulnerable to cyber threats if left unaltered. In the future, the private industry and the government must quickly acknowledge and tackle these vulnerabilities, and design and enforce proper regulations for the IoT as a whole.
Security threats to medical devices have been a widespread and integral topic of discussion in the cybersecurity field since the mid-2000s. However, it has taken over a decade for these concerns to be officially addressed in the healthcare industry. As technology continues to advance and proliferate in our everyday lives, it is critical that the public and private sectors work together to address cybersecurity concerns in order to maintain the welfare of patients, hospitals, and societies.
Audrey Lee is a Columbia Engineering sophomore studying biomedical engineering. She is a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review.