Study Reveals Whole-Genome Sequencing Can Improve Childhood Cancer Outcomes 

According to a pilot study performed by doctors in Cambridge, reading the full genetic code of childhood cancers can help doctors improve an overall diagnosis. The code can also help doctors learn about how tumors grow and how to find the most effective treatment therapies for specific tumors. 

In the study the doctors used whole-genome sequencing on 36 children with cancer. They found that the extra information they were provided changed four of the patients’ diagnoses and revealed new treatment options in seven cases. 

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Seeing the whole-genome sequence of the cancer’s DNA allows doctors to learn even more about the specific cancers that their patients are dealing with. Clinicians in the study were able to refine two of their previous diagnoses, learn more about the course of the disease in eight of the children, and found potential hereditary reasons for tumors in two of the subjects. 

“Our aim was to illustrate what can be achieved with whole-genome sequencing and to try and advertise its utility. Locally in Cambridge it was never really in question that this would add value,” said Dr Patrick Tarpey, lead scientist for solid cancer in the East Genomic Laboratory Hub based at Cambridge University hospitals NHS foundation trust.

The results are projected to be shared at the National Cancer Research Institute festival. NHS England has already discussed their plans of rolling out whole-genome sequencing for childhood cancers with the goal of making sequencing a normal part of treatment. This will allow doctors to continuously track specific aspects of their patients’ cancer to make adjustments in treatment for the best possible outcome. 

The 36 children involved in the study had 23 different tumor types. All participants endured a standard test to identify their cancer, and test their genome sequencing to see whether or not their current treatment was actually improving the condition or not. 

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According to the study, comparing the genetic makeup of a tumor versus healthy tissue within the same individual can help doctors identify the specific mutations that are driving the cancer, and potentially can reveal the tumor’s weakness. The work itself is no easy task, however, as it can take anywhere from two to three months to successfully and accurately interpret the genome sequence. 

Tarpey said “about three-quarters of the gene variants flagged up in the study came from whole-genome analysis rather than the standard cancer tests the children had. There are cases where the diagnosis was completely uncertain and we’ve been able to confirm it, and in doing so identify the mechanisms that impaired the genes.”

Sheona Scales is a pediatric leader at Cancer Research UK, who said that children with cancer often undergo grueling treatments, and even when they’re over the side-effects can last a lifetime, which is why studies like this are so important. 

“It is vital that we find ways to tailor treatments towards the individual and for this, whole-genome sequencing is a game-changer.” 

“Understanding more about the makeup of a child’s cancer can help doctors make the most informed treatment choices for their patients. The hope is that this will lead to better outcomes for children with cancer, not just in terms of survival, but also in the quality of the rest of their lives,” she explained.


Hackers Target Government Officials Using WhatsApp

Facebook is embroiled in controversy in the aftermath of the company’s decision not to remove political advertisements that contain falsehoods, drawing criticism from politicians and the general public alike for being complicit in spreading misinformation. The social media platform is no stranger to controversy of this sort, as many critics have called out the company for failing to mitigate the impact of foreign interference in elections and for failing to adequately safeguard its users’ privacy, among other concerns. Most recently, the news organization Reuters reported that hackers have been using WhatsApp, a messaging application owned by Facebook, to attack government officials. 

According to Reuters, an internal investigation conducted by WhatsApp revealed that a “significant” portion of the victims were high-profile government and military officials, many of which were allies of the U.S. As government officials from the United States and around the world have been known to use WhatsApp to communicate sensitive information, the WhatsApp hacks pose a significant risk to domestic and international security. In response to the attacks, WhatsApp sued the Israeli hacking tool developer NSO Group, alleging that they created and sold a hacking platform that allowed their clients to hack the cellphones of at least 1,400 users between April and May of this year. The total number of affected users is unknown, but is likely to be much higher than the 1,400 users mentioned in the lawsuit.

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It’s not clear as of yet who was directly responsible for initiating the hacks, but NSO sells spyware exclusively to government customers, suggesting adversaries of the U.S. may be responsible. Known victims include officials in the United States, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan, and India. While most of the victims have not disclosed the fact that their security may have been compromised, some Indian nationals have publicly alleged they were among the targets of the attacks, including journalists, academics, and lawyers.

NSO has denied any wrongdoing, and has said that it is “not able to disclose who is or is not a client or discuss specific uses of its technology.” Instead, NSO claims that its products are intended only for catching terrorists and other criminals. However, experts doubt this claim, as they suspect products developed by NSO have been widely used for more nefarious purposes.

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WhatsApp has notified victims that they had been hacked, and checked their list of known victims against law enforcement requests for information relating to criminal investigations, but found no overlap between the two sets of data. Instead of relying on spyware like that developed by NSO Group, WhatsApp encourages governments to submit requests for information to the company through an online portal they maintain. Though WhatsApp provides its users with end-to-end encryption, ensuring that only the sender and recipient are able to read the contents of messages, the company nevertheless cooperates with governments for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

As of 2015, WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging application, as it allows users to send text messages, media, voice messages, and make Voice over IP calls, among other features. The app is available around the world, and is particularly popular in countries other than the U.S. Facebook purchased WhatsApp in February of 2014 for $19 billion, representing the social network’s largest acquisition to date. Due to the app’s ability to enable secure, private communication between individuals, the app is banned in China, a country with strict restrictions on speech. WhatsApp has been the subject of criticism for multiple reasons, including its use by terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, as well as the prevalence of scams and malware throughout the app.

Judges Gavel

European Court Rules that Countries can Force Facebook to Delete Content

On Thursday, Europe’s top court ruled that countries can force Facebook to delete content and restrict access to information globally, in a ruling that allows countries to ban access to information outside of their own borders. The decision came after a former Austrian politician sued in an attempt to force the social media company to take down negative commentary that had been posted about her on the site by individual users. The politician, Eva Glawisching-Piesczek, successfully argued that the company is obligated to restrict access to this information around the world, setting a legal precedent which empowers nations to essentially remove information from the internet at will.

As standards for privacy, defamation, and libel vary from country to country, this ruling has wide-reaching implications for how information can be regulated on the Internet, a platform which is by its very nature global and resistant to any one regulatory body. As it is nearly impossible to create a single set of standards for what information should be allowed on a global level, this ruling instead allows nations to enforce their own standards on a global level, concerning advocates for free speech who fear the ruling will lead to mass censorship of legitimate political discussion. Facebook strongly rebuked the ruling, claiming the judgment “undermines the longstanding principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country.”

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Facebook, which is a company based in the United States, nonetheless has to obey the laws of all of the nations in which it operates. The ruling draws attention to the difference in philosophy between the regulation of information in the United States, which takes an almost entirely hands-off approach, and Europe, which is more likely to compel companies like Facebook to restrict access to information. A controversial privacy law in Europe, dubbed “the right to be forgotten,” allows European citizens to compel search engines like Google to remove links to their personal data from search results. No equivalent law exists in the US, and the European Court of Justice last week ruled that this law generally applies only within the European Union.

Facebook represents the public face of the spread of information during an era in which changes in how information spreads around the world has strongly influenced global politics. A report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice in March of this year found widespread interference in the integrity of American elections by Russian operatives, who leveraged social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to spread false information and to release stolen documents in a deliberate effort to favor one political party over another. This interference, conducted by a number of countries, is likely to continue and intensify during the 2020 US election and has been used in propaganda efforts at an unprecedented scale around the world. As a growing percentage of the US population gets their news from social media as opposed to more traditional and reputable news outlets, the electorate is increasingly likely to be unknowingly swayed by information that is propagated by a foreign power with the intent of undermining the integrity of elections.

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Facebook, for their part, has announced plans to take stronger preventative measures to deter the spread of fake news on their platform. Though the company was arguably complicit in allowing Russian interference in 2016 by taking a hands-off approach to the content of advertisers, the company has implemented plans to identify and label fraudulent activity on the site and has implemented stricter policies for what type of advertising they allow. That being said, the company has chosen not to limit the speech of politicians who advertise using the platform, even when they lie or break rules, as they claim that it’s “not [their] role to intervene when politicians speak.” Despite calls from Democratic contender Kamala Harris and others to ban Donald Trump for breaking the social media site’s rules, Twitter has taken a similar approach, allowing the President to repeat a false narrative that alleges corruption of his political rival Joe Biden.

The European Court’s ruling is just one of the conundrums Facebook and other social media platforms find themselves in with regards to regulating the spread of information around the world. As corporate entities, these platforms have virtually unlimited power to censor the speech they allow their users to circulate. However, there’s no denying that in recent years social media platforms have become more akin to a “public square” than a traditional publisher of information, which suggests they have a responsibility both to allow the free and open exchange of ideas and to curtail speech that poses a clear and present danger. How they, and the governments which have the power to regulate them, manage that responsibility is an ongoing question whose answer ultimately remains to be seen.