Heart attacks are frightening by themselves, but they're made worse by the potential for lasting damage. Even a brief interruption to blood flow could permanently destroy vital tissue that keeps your heart beating as usual. However, there might be a way to mitigate or even prevent that damage. Scientists have discovered that a light-sensitive bacteria, synechococcus elongatus, can keep oxygen coming in the midst of a heart attack. Much like a plant, the bacteria both draws on photosynthesis for energy and turns both CO2 and water into oxygen. If you expose it to light soon after the attack, you can maintain oxygen levels and increase the heart's blood-pumping ability after the attack is over.
In lab rats, the results were dramatic. Oxygen levels were 25 times higher 10 minutes after the attack, and the hearts pumped 60 percent more blood 45 minutes after the attack. If you could use this as an emergency treatment in humans, it could mean the difference between outright heart failure and a reasonably healthy patient.
The emphasis is on "if," however. It's easy to shine light into the small body of a rat; it's tougher to do that with humans, who have thicker heart muscles (and are much larger, of course). There's also the question of whether or not the bacteria are completely safe. Don't count on this solution reaching hospitals soon, if at all. Nonetheless, the discovery is promising: it suggests that there's a way to protect your heart against long-term harm even as doctors race to save you from the immediate threat.
As far as anyone knows, there hasn't been a real-life hack attack on someone's pacemaker. Which is surprising. Security researchers have shown us that it's a very real possibility. Even the FTC has been urging connected medical device makers to adopt security best practices, with multiple 2017 reports stressing the issue.
Since device makers apparently can't be trusted, medical professionals are taking emergency measures to keep patients alive. At the recent Cyber Med Summit, doctors put together a sort-of hacker boot camp for medical professionals.
The conference combined talks with gritty (and sometimes bloody) live-action simulations where doctors were faced with with a new kind of medical crisis: Figuring out if a patient -- or more specifically, the technology that keeps them alive -- has been hacked.
During the conference, there were three immersive emergency exercises in which patient insulin pumps and pacemakers had been hacked and doctors needed to act fast to save lives. Josh Corman, founder of I Am The Cavalry and one of the event's co-founder's, told Engadget that these crisis simulations were when they realized the urgency of this conference.
"The three simulations involved an insulin pump, a bedside infusion pump, and a pacemaker," Corman said in a call. "When the doctor found out after the exercise that the pump's tech failed in a certain way, she said if she'd realized that she'd have just swapped out the pump." He added, "But we explained to her that it wouldn't have mattered because the libraries it was pulling from were hacked."
Some of these riveting scenarios transitioned into surgeries on excruciatingly realistic dummies. Seeing the "patient died a few times" in live tweets from the event is disconcerting, to say the least. Corman told us, "That's when we realized that physicians explicitly trust the technology they depend on, and it was really disruptive when the technology failed them."
"We knew that physicians would be able to adapt to certain things," he explained, "but during the medical simulations we realized they're not trained for this."
Over 100 medical professionals, infosec professionals, policymakers, a few medical device manufacturers, and a handful of law enforcement officials attended the first-of-its kind event. (You can watch the keynotes here.) The results? Maybe you should make sure your doctor keeps a hacker on staff. Many at the Summit got a terrifying crash-course and probably realized they need to add "hacking" to their list of possible problems to assess and diagnose.
The time of the doctor that hacks is here, and that's who brought the event together. Doctors Jeffrey Tully and Christian Dameff are physicians who also happen to be hackers; their first DEF CON presentation was "Hacking Humanity: Human Augmentation and You" in 2013. Tully recently finished a pediatric residency and is about to start another; Dameff completed a residency in emergency medicine and is getting ready for a fellowship.
"Doctors are hackers, they just don't know it," Dameff told the University of Arizona newspaper. "They think through the pathology of a disease. They look for weaknesses of the disease, of the system, just like hackers."
The pair made the Cyber Med Summit happen in partnership with DC policy think tank The Atlantic Council, whose motto is "Working Together To Secure The Future." The conference idea came at DEF CON in 2014, where they connected with Josh Corman and Beau Woods, both of whom are directors of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Corman explained that Dameff and Tully's talk that year was the hook to make the Cyber Med Summit happen -- a cautionary presentation titled "Hacking 911 - Adventures in Disruption Destruction and Death."
Dameff told press after the event, "When we know of the first patient that dies of a cyberattack ... you can't put the genie back in the bottle." He added, "It's going to usher in a new era of healthcare cybersecurity where hospitals are going to be scrambling. That's not the time to do it -- the time to do it is now."
In talking to those who were there, it's clear that the Cyber Med Summit was a wake-up call, even for the researchers who put it together. Josh Corman told Engadget that there's a silver lining on the horizon: The National Governor's Association is interested in replicating the event. "A huge percentage of modern healthcare is dependent on tech now and they have not integrated security anywhere," Corman said. "We need to do this in all 50 states."