Cambridge Festival shares cutting-edge health research

Cambridge Festival 2022 shares the very latest in health research whilst asking and debating the big questions around some of the ethical dilemmas raised.

Topics include new therapies for cardiovascular disease, emerging technologies for organ transplantation, and the future of fertility treatments, regenerative medicine and gene editing.

Run by the University of Cambridge, Cambridge Festival (31 March- 10 April) hosts over 350 events that tackle our most pressing issues, from the multiple crises in politics, health and climate change to global economics and human rights. Almost all the events are free.

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, taking millions of lives each year. In Future therapies in cardiovascular research (6 April, online), a team of leading University of Cambridge researchers discuss the future therapies being developed to treat cardiovascular disease, including a look at new uses for existing drugs and the coming wave of RNA-based therapies that target our genetic machinery. With Professor of Nursing Christi Deaton; Clinical Lecturer in Geriatric and Stroke Medicine Dr Nick Evans; Clinical Lecturer in Cardiovascular Medicine Dr Tian Zhao; and BHF Intermediate Research Fellow Dr Meritxell Nus.

The success of organ transplantation is one of modern medicine’s great stories. Despite that success, a global shortage of donor organs remains. In Transforming transplantation (31 March, in person), transplant surgeon and research director Professor Mike Nicholson, University of Cambridge, introduces two researchers working to solve this problem. PhD student Serena MacMillan talks about her work focussing on efforts to convert all donor kidneys to blood group O, thus avoiding the issue of blood group matching in transplantation. Academic Clinical Fellow James Ashcroft discusses his work on extremely small particles called ‘exosomes’ released by cells, which may be able to predict how well a donated kidney will perform in its new owner before it is transplanted.

In a related event, Let’s talk about transplantation (6 April, in person, online), pioneering consultant surgeons and researchers from Cambridge University Hospitals explore emerging technologies for transplantation. Mr Neville Jamieson looks back at how far organ transplantation has come in a very short space of time. Mr Dominic Summers provides an overview on the current practices of organ transplantation and his insights into a new pilot study for uncontrolled organ donation. Dr Krishnaa Mahbubani, a research scientist and senior study manager for the Cambridge Biorepository for Translational Medicine, discusses new developments in xenotranplantation (the transplantation of living cells, tissues, or organs from one species to another), regenerative therapies, and bioengineering options.

Family planning has also been hailed as one of modern medicine’s success stories. However, while there have been huge leaps in contraceptive options, unmet needs still exist. How is current research and technology trying to address these needs? In The future of family planning: can technology help? (4 April, online), a cross-disciplinary panel discuss the latest technologies that aim to revolutionise contraception and family planning. They also discuss the challenges and risks of innovation. Dr Lucy van de Wiel, Lecturer in Global Health and Social Medicine, Kings College London, discusses egg freezing in the context of ageing. Dr Caroline Rusterholz, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in History, University of Cambridge focuses on the history of contraception and family planning technologies, such as Depo-Provera. Rob Milnes, CEO of viO HealthTech (a multinational company that offers fertility technologies for women) and Frederik Petursson Madsen, CEO of OUI (creators of next-generation contraceptive technology to replace hormonal birth control) explore what they see as the future of family planning and Femtech.

Cutting-edge research, including advances in embryology, help scientists gain valuable insights into the earliest processes of human development and to better understand why some pregnancies fail or result in abnormalities. These insights may eventually enable new and better treatments for infertility. In Cambridge at the cutting edge of human embryo research: does better science require fewer limits? (8 April, online), a panel of experts debate the many legal, ethical, and moral questions raised about which experiments are acceptable, and where we should draw the boundaries. Chaired by Professor Nick Hopwood, historian of biological and medical sciences at the University of Cambridge. With Professor Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge – in 2016 she became the first scientist in the world to gain regulatory approval to edit the genomes of human embryos for research; Professor Sarah Franklin, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge – she has substantially contributed to the fields of feminism, gender studies, cultural studies and the social study of reproductive and genetic technology; and Professor Robin Lovell-Badge from the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute – he is most famous for his discovery, along with Peter Goodfellow, of the SRY gene on the Y-chromosome that is the determinant of sex in mammals.

Regenerative medicine is another exciting and rapidly developing field that involves regrowing, repairing, or replacing damaged or diseased human cells, organs, or tissues. This could offer us a future in which replacement organs are always available and many types of injuries are no longer permanent. However, the use of such techniques also raises ethical questions and blurs distinctions between therapy and enhancement. In the Baron de Lancey lecture 2022: engineering the regulatory future of regenerative medicine (10 March, in person, online), Professor Bartha Knoppers, Canada Research Chair in Law and Medicine, and Director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University, discusses whether there are sufficient safeguards for patient welfare, or does international human rights law have a role to play? 

CRISPR gene editing also promises to revolutionise healthcare. This transformative technology is currently being developed and harnessed for a range of uses including treating genetic disease. However, gene editing is limited to choices amongst the building blocks (amino acids) that life has used for billions of years. In his talk, Breaking the rules of protein synthesis in living systems (1 April, in person), chemist turned synthetic biologist Dr Kim Liu from MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology explores whether we could use more building blocks than those that already exist. He asks, instead of only editing the genetic code, could we also expand it? If so, could we unlock endless new abilities that nature cannot yet evolve, and even explore the possibility of producing new materials.

Of course, many of these advances are subject to as broad a base of public understanding and support as possible. And much of this comes down to how scientists communicate their research. In Covid communications: did science win? (1 April, in person, online), a panel of experts asks: what have we learned from the COVID pandemic about science communications? Broadcaster and virologist Dr Chris Smith from the Naked Scientists and University of Cambridge talks about his experience of public engagement during the pandemic. Social psychologist Professor Sander van der Linden from the University of Cambridge speaks about his work on countering conspiracy theories and on literacy. Dr Moira Nicolson, Behavioural Science Lead at the Cabinet Office, discusses the role of her team in addressing vaccine hesitancy, what worked and what didn't. Professor of Health Psychology Tushna Vandrevala from Kingston University and St George's University of London talks about COVID vaccine hesitancy among hard-to-reach groups.

In a related COVID event, In conversation with SARS-CoV-2 variant hunters (5 April in person, online), University of Cambridge researchers Professor Sharon Peacock and Dr Katerina Galai from the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium, examine the genomic sequencing of the virus causing COVID-19, and how this work helps in understanding transmission, how to treat the disease and the effectiveness of vaccines.

A major challenge for healthcare is that half the medications prescribed are never taken. Why don’t we take our medicines and what can be done? This question is debated and new research findings discussed during a panel event, My medicine and me (2 April, in person). With John Weinman, Professor of Psychology at Kings College London; Robert Horne, Professor of Behavioural Medicine at University College London; Dr Christina Jackson, behavioural psychologist at Sprout Health Solutions; and Ricky Stoch, a human-centred designer, consultant and founder of Studio Fundi. Chaired by Professor Mike Kelly, Public Health and Primary Care Unit, University of Cambridge.

Further health-related events include:

  • LGBTQ+ health: what does our research tell us so far? (pre-festival event, 10 March, online). Dr Katie Saunders, from Cambridge Centre for Health Services Research, introduces key findings from her research into health inequalities experienced by LGBTQ+ people.

  • Pre-packaged: corporate and political influences on children's nutrition (31 March, in person). Dr Sarah Steele, Jesus College Intellectual Forum and Cambridge Public Health, University of Cambridge, explores the levels of influence industry exercises over public policy and asks: how can we build healthier food environments for children in the UK?

  • Turning science into medicine! (31 March, online). Can gene therapy reverse hereditary blindness? Can a drug used for cancer help heart-attack patients recover? And how can AI help patients with brain tumours? University of Cambridge clinicians and researchers, Drs Patrick Yu Wai Man, Rochelle Sriranjan and Stephen Price talk about their work to develop new treatments. They are joined by Professor Miles Parkes, Director of NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

  • Rubik's Cubes and Pyramids – how to crack the codes of getting fit (6 April, in person). Former GB Paralympic cyclist Dr Dan Gordon, Anglia Ruskin University, explores the connections between our responses to exercise and the Rubik's Cube and Pyramids.

  • Understanding musculoskeletal ageing (6 April, in person). Dr Jasmine Samvelyan, Anglia Ruskin University, talks about her ongoing research into understanding the causes and development of age-related bone diseases. 

  • V – viruses, variants and vaccines (7 April, in person). Professor of Innate Immunity Clare Bryant explains how the body responds to infections and what vaccines do. Dr Brian Ferguson University Associate Professor in Innate Immunity discusses viruses and their variants. Dr Aki Jha Clinical Lecturer in Respiratory Medicine examines new vaccine approaches. 

  • Why calories don't count (8 April, in person, online). University of Cambridge obesity researcher Dr Giles Yeo addresses why popular diets ultimately fail, and what the environment has to do with bodyweight.

For the full programme and bookings, please see the Festival website: www.festival.cam.ac.uk    

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