Cambridge Science Festival showcases new research at the forefront of healthcare and medicine

From growing organs in the lab and 3D printing of living cells to a promising new treatment for hardened arteries, scientists at the forefront of medical research discuss groundbreaking developments in healthcare and medicine during events at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival (9-22 March). Bookings open today (Monday 10th February).

Image: Talking science with the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy Credit:  Domininkas Zalys

All events are free.  Other topics covered include the impact of new and emerging global infectious diseases such as coronavirus; innovative new methods for detecting ovarian cancer; the promises and pitfalls of gene editing; the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs; the world’s second HIV cure; and using stem cells to regenerate damaged tissues.

Using state-of-the-art technology, researchers are now able to grow organoids – miniature versions of organs. In Mini-organs in a dish: how organoids are revolutionising research (12 March), Dr Emma Rawlins, The Gurdon Institute, explains how organoids are grown and discusses why this new technology is so important for biomedical research.

Dr Rawlins said: “Scientists have been growing animal and human cells in the laboratory for more than 60 years. While these lab-grown cells are a powerful research tool, providing the basis for important developments in modern medicine, including some cancer drugs, anti-HIV therapies and vaccines, they are grown in very artificial conditions and therefore don’t resemble any cells in our bodies. Ten years ago, Professor Hans Clevers and colleagues in the Netherlands invented a more complex cell culture system in which ‘mini-organs’, or ‘organoids’, could be grown. This discovery has led to a worldwide revolution in cell growth.

“Scientists in Cambridge are at the forefront of this research, and mini-guts, livers, lungs, kidneys, placentas and even brains are growing in labs all over the city. This ability to study cells in a more natural setting provides many new and interesting research opportunities. Organoid technology has already been used to study human embryonic development, to test personalised treatments for cystic fibrosis and to replace some of the animals used in drug testing. Scientists are now exploring its potential for growing replacement organs, repairing damaged genes and providing personalised treatments for other diseases.”

Researchers are also exploring whether they can ‘print’ biomaterials to repair organs amongst other healthcare benefits. In 3D printing for healthcare (14 March), Dr Yan Yan Shery Huang, Department of Engineering, gives an overview on how 3D printing technologies could transform the way implants are produced, drugs are screened or perhaps even how damaged organs are ‘repaired’.

“3D printing is already making impacts on patients needing artificial limbs, where the plastic-based prosthesis can be made 'personalised' to shapes and sizes, with relatively low-cost and short production time,” Dr Huang said. “For 3D printed personalised implants it is more technologically demanding; although, non-biological material-based implants are making their ways to the market and patients, such as 3D printed dental implants and implants for bone structural reconstruction.

“Research is now focused on overcoming challenges in using 3D printing for biological materials and even living materials like cells. Applications are focused on two main streams: bioprinting for tissue and organ function replacements, including printing a scaffold for a heart, a human ear, and a blood vessel-permeated-bioreactor; and bioprinting for drug testing – pseudo-models of different levels of complexities, from brain to muscles have already been created. Research is continuing, with the aim to reduce and replace animal studies and to improve the predictive power of the models.”

Hardening of the arteries is a widespread condition that is a major cause of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and stroke. Stroke is also linked to vascular dementia and is one of the nation’s major causes of adult disability – there is a stroke every five minutes in the UK and costs the economy £26b per annum. This figure is expected to triple by 2035. Despite the huge impact that hardened arteries have for human health, there are still no cures. In More than a blocked pipe: the hardening of arteries and their role in stroke and heart attacks (18 March), Dr Nick Evans, Department of Medicine, and Professor Melinda Duer, Department of Chemistry, discuss their combined efforts to find better diagnoses and treatments. They reveal new research and findings on how hardened arteries can be diagnosed more precisely through PET (positron emission tomography), which is proving to be an excellent way to assess carotid calcification in patients and could lead to potential new drug treatment.

Speaking ahead of the event, Professor Duer said: “To stop artery calcification, we need to stop the mineral from forming in the artery wall in the first place.  We have very recently discovered that a molecule known as poly(ADP ribose), produced by cells in the artery wall that are stressed from fatty deposits around them, is responsible for initiating the formation of the mineral deposits. poly(ADP ribose) gathers calcium and sticks it to the collagen and other molecules in the artery wall, so concentrating the calcium into specific spots in the artery wall which then allows mineral to form.  The exciting treatment possibility is to stop stressed cells from making poly(ADP ribose) – if it works, it will be the first drug treatment for vascular calcification.”  

Dr Evans added: “Our newly presented research also shows how we can identify the microcalcification in patients using PET and how it gives us an understanding of the different processes causing atherosclerotic plaques (the hardening of arteries) to become damaged and trigger clots to form that cause a stroke.”

Scientists and researchers at the forefront of tackling ovarian cancer are also making breakthroughs. In Tackling ovarian cancer: turning the tide on one of the toughest cancers (19 March), Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (CRUK CI), the Department of Radiology and AstraZeneca discuss how they are rapidly turning the tide on ovarian cancer using innovative new detection methods and through new treatments, such as Olaparib – which was made available in the UK in December 2019. 

The new detection methods currently being researched by CRUK CI include ‘liquid biopsy’, a process that uses advanced genomic technologies to extract cancer tumour DNA fragments from patient’s blood plasma. The process offers earlier detection and is far less invasive for patients. Another method is ‘virtual biopsy’ using state-of-the-art imaging techniques, which is also being researched by the Department of Radiology, University of Cambridge.

The final day of the Festival, Sunday 22nd March, is dedicated to health with over 50 events hosted across Cambridge Biomedical Campus (CBC). Events include Gene editing: rewriting the future! Dr Alasdair Russell, CRUK CI, talks about the CRISPR genome editing revolution, its promise and its pitfalls.  In The story of HIV Public Health England and partner organisations discuss the history of HIV in England and show how we have come so far in the diagnosis, treatment and care of people living with the illness. During Open science at the Jeffrey Cheah biomedical centre, visitors can learn more about the ‘new kids on the block’ on the CBC and chat with scientists about stem cells, infectious diseases, cancer and new therapies. Tours of Royal Papworth Hospital offer a look inside one of the world’s leading heart and lung hospitals and a chance to meet the outstanding teams involved in delivering patient care.

Further related health-related events:

  • More light than heat: using data to gain insight into disease transmission (9 March). 2020 is the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. Professor Christl Donnelly, Imperial College London, takes a long view of using data visualisation and analysis to inform policymakers about how diseases spread, how control measures are working (or not working) and who is at greatest risk.
  • Health & inequalities: a view of the future (10 March). Professor Ann Louise Kinmonth and Dr John Ford, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, and Dr Mia Gray, Department of Geography, discuss how socio-economic inequalities might influence our future wellness.
  • 2020 annual WiSETI lecture: you could die of infection (11 March). Professor Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College and former Chief Medical Officer, discusses the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and what is being done to tackle it.
  • Cancer immunotherapy: innovation from laboratory bench to bedside (11 March). What exactly is cancer immunotherapy? How does it work? How is it helping patients? How can this new treatment be improved? Professor Klaus Okkenhaug, Department of Pathology, together with clinicians answers these questions and more.
  • Every drop counts: blood donors of the future (12 March). Professor Emanuele Di Angelantonio, Director of the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit in Donor Health and Genomics, talks about recruiting blood donors, identifying blood types and understanding the effects of frequent donation.
  • The horrible history (and the bright future) of organ preservation (12 March). Professor Mike Nicholson and Dr Sarah Hosgood from the NIHR Blood and Transplant Unit in Organ Donation and Transplantation present a whistle-stop tour of the history of organ preservation.
  • Life’s critical link: the amazing role of the placenta in pregnancy and life-long health (14 March). Researchers from the Centre for Trophoblast Research discuss the formation and function of this remarkable organ, its importance to pregnancy and health beyond the womb and the pioneering work that is going on in Cambridge.
  • The grander view: how modern microscopy illuminates a rare disease (14 March). Microscopy continues to develop and now allows us to glimpse the movement of individual proteins in a cell. Professor Stefan Marciniak, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, discusses how modern microscopes illuminate a rare disease.
  • CRISPR technology and the future of genome editing (16 March). The discovery of CRISPRCas9 genetic engineering technology has changed genomics research forever. Co-discoverer Professor Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley, discusses the implications of this new gene-editing tool and advocates for thoughtful approaches to policies around its use.
  • Global problems, local solutions: shaping healthcare issues with emerging innovations (17 March). Gates Cambridge Scholars address key healthcare challenges in resource-limited settings, with a focus on emerging public health technologies and local innovations that may serve as templates for the rest of the world – from novel prevention interventions and disease mapping and control, to virtual consultations and responding to disease outbreaks in a speedy fashion (especially pertinent with the new coronavirus outbreak in China).
  • The London patient: the world’s second HIV cure (17 March). In 2019, Professor Ravi Gupta, Department of Medicine, and colleagues achieved a milestone by successfully eliminating the HIV virus from a patient through a bone-marrow transplant. They discuss this breakthrough and how it could help find new ways to tackle HIV and achieve a cure.
  • Biological annihilation: a threat to humanity? (20 March). Dr Freya Jephcott and Dr Sarah Caddy from Cambridge Infectious Diseases discuss the threat posed by infectious diseases. Using examples from a range of animal and human diseases, including Ebola and the current coronavirus, they explore how science can help to limit and control the impact of new and emerging diseases.
  • Mending broken hearts: stem cells for heart disease (20 March). Dr Sanjay Sinha, Wellcome – MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, describes the problem of heart failure after a heart attack and how we can use stem cells to regenerate the damaged tissues.
  • Science and the future of medicine (20 March). Recent advances in science are transforming our ability to understand and treat diseases. This one-day meeting explores these emerging areas shaping the future of medicine. Organised by Professor Ashok Venkitaraman, Director of the MRC Cancer Unit and Dr James Fraser, Cambridge Cardiovascular.
  • The fine print: towards wearable electronics (21 March). Electronics that stick to the skin or within the body are very useful for health monitoring, medical treatment and biological studies. This event showcases advances in additive manufacturing techniques, whereby functional nanomaterials are directly ‘printed’ to create devices for wearable electronics.
  • Sugar and spice and all things nice: a journey into taste sensors in the body (21 March). Dr Havovi Chichger, Anglia Ruskin University, delves into the weird and wonderful locations in the body that can taste, and considers how and why these tissues and organs, including the kidney and lungs, sense taste and what this means in relation to our diet and health.
  • Better than bionic: building better medical implants (21 March). Which materials are currently used in implants for regenerative medicine? What is the current technology to produce more natural and functional prostheses and implants? Researchers from Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials discuss their cutting-edge work.
  • Hands-on science at the vet school: reading and writing the code of life (21 March). A series of fascinating talks and workshops showcasing cutting-edge biomedical research, including how CRISPR gene-editing technology can be used to fight superbugs, how research on the ageing process in dogs can inform human medicine, and how bat conservation could help reduce pandemic risk.

Bookings open on Monday 10 February at 11am.

The full programme can downloaded via Cambridge Science Festival>>>

Image: Talking science with the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy
Credit:  Domininkas Zalys

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media via Facebook and Twitter #CamSciFest and Instagram.

This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, Illumina, TTP Group, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge Epigenetix, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust. Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.


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