Cambridge Europe & Technology Club - Broadsheet for April 2003


Another casualty of the great blizzard on 30th January was the AGM, but we managed to fit it in to the March meeting with quite a high attendance and elected five new committee members.

The committee now comprises eleven members: Roy Cuthbert; Chairman, Bernard Townshend; Treasurer, Nigel Wallace; Secretary, Tracey Stephens; Publicity, John Batten, Barry Butler, Ken Dickson, Simon Kite, Martin Livermore, Guy Mulley and John Read. Our grateful thanks goes to our retiring committee members; Markus Keller, Alasdair Poore, Dorcas Doolan and Robin Wilkinson.

This was followed by a short tribute to our late President, Professor Roger Needham, CBE, FRS, formerly MD of Microsoft Research, who sadly died four weeks previously on 28th February. At the next meeting it is hoped to be able to show a short video about Microsoft Research, that he made a few months before he died.

The subject for the March meeting was Emerging Technologies, organised by the Secretary to include two biological advances, one emerging for the first time and the other re-emerging in a different guise.

First we had Professor Charles French-Constant from the Department of Medical Genetics in Cambridge University who explained in very simple terms the principles of Stem-cells. At last true immortality has been achieved as these cells in their symmetric-division mode keep on dividing into pairs for ever. Even in the asymmetric mode they produce one new stem-cell and one neuron or some other differentiated cell, which are mere mortals. In the embryo they start all the same and keep reprogramming so producing all the different cell types which eventually form the baby. In some of the simpler animals they can regenerate a severed part, for example the flat worm can grow two heads. In therapeutic use stem-cells may facilitate the process of regrowing cells or organs derived from the patient themselves (therapeutic cloning) and therefore cause no rejection. Such cells may in the future be used to repair brain damage from Huntington's disease or replace pancreatic cells for diabetes sufferers.

While these techniques can produce new individuals (as shown by Dolly the sheep) the malformation rate for this process is very high and it is of course ethically unacceptable (and illegal) to clone human beings.

In Cambridge we are potentially most advanced in the world in therapeutic stem-cell research. This has come about partly through the more informed ethical framework and regulations that apply in the UK and the high priority given to it by the University.


The next emerging technology was the Biofuel-cell. Professor APF (Tony) Turner, Head of Cranfield University at Silsoe, flew in from a technology transfer meeting in Stockholm with a CD in his pocket and gave us a fascinating illustrated talk on the history and development of Fuel Cells from 1894 to the present departure into bio-electronics. On the way he showed how advanced fuel cells had become, even since the days of the Apollo moon missions.

He gave examples of the Daimler-Chrysler car engines, mobile phones using methanol as fuel and applications for camcorders, palm-tops and power tools. The greatest advantage was genuine 100% efficiency and (with the hydrogen fuel cell) absolutely no pollution. Tony's expertise lay in bio-sensors and bio-electronics, in which he is a world leader and this has opened up many applications for the exploitation of the electron transfers that occur in biological materials. Biological catalysts can be incorporated into fuel cells to produce bioelectrodes, but up to now the currents generated have been far too small. However, a revolutionary design change in the biocell, which also allows the removal of the semi-permeable membrane between the anode and cathode has facilitated a twenty fold increase in current density. Medical uses such as powering pace-makers and infusion pumps in the body, and sugar control in diabetes patients, using both the power and sensing elements of the cell, were some of the most interesting possibilities, but Professor Turner predicted that military applications were the most likely starters. This was because of the efficiency, silence and complete freedom from emissions of the biofuel cell and its ability to generate electricity directly from low concentrations of fuel such as waste materials.


That famous blizzard has also delayed our start on the 2003-2004 programme. The Committee are busy sorting out subject headings and it would help immensely if any of you with ideas that will catch our audiences' imagination could e-mail them to me (with contact details if possible) -


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