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Professor Clare Grey awarded €1 million Körber Prize

10 hours 44 min ago

Grey pioneered the optimisation of batteries with the help of NMR spectroscopy –similar to MRI technology – a method that allows non-invasive insights into the inner workings of batteries.

Her NMR studies have helped to significantly increase the performance of lithium-ion batteries, which power mobile phones, laptops and electric cars. She has been instrumental in the development of next-generation batteries and cost-effective, durable storage systems for renewable energy. She sees her fundamental research as an important contribution to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

“There have been significant advances in lithium-ion batteries since they were commercialised in the 1990s,” said Grey. “Their energy density has tripled and prices have fallen by 90 percent.”

Grey’s research has made key contributions to these developments. She is a pioneer in the study of solids with the help of NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy, which she has developed and applied to allow researchers to observe the electrochemical processes at work during charging and discharging of batteries.

Clare Grey, 56, studied chemistry at the University of Oxford. At the age of 22, she published her first scientific article in the journal Nature. After completing her doctoral studies in 1991, she went to Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and has also worked as a visiting scientist at the US chemical company Dupont.

In 1994, she joined the State University of New York at Stony Brook as an assistant professor, and she became a full professor in 2001. In 2009, she became Geoffrey Moorhouse Gibson Professor at the University of Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. She is a Fellow of Pembroke College, and has been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 2011.

At the time Grey was still a student, most chemist and physicists used X-rays to determine the internal structure of solids. Grey was one of the first in her field to use solid state NMR instead: during her time in the USA, she met researchers from the Duracell company who inspired her to use the technology to study materials in batteries.

“Previously, the usual investigations with X-rays only provided an average picture,” Grey said. “With the help of NMR, I was able to detect the local structural details in these often-disordered materials.”

Initially, she examined individual materials by opening the batteries at a certain stage of their charging and discharging cycle. The aim was to find out which chemical processes cause the batteries to age and how their lifespan and capacity could be increased. Later, she improved the NMR technology so that she could use it to examine batteries during operation without destroying them, which helped speed up the studies enormously.

Now, in addition to her work improving lithium-ion batteries, Grey is developing a range of different next-generation batteries, including lithium-air batteries (which use oxidation of lithium and reduction of oxygen to induce a current), sodium, magnesium and redox flow batteries.

Her NMR studies allow her to follow the processes at work inside these batteries in real time and help determine the processes that cause batteries to degrade. She is working on further optimising the NMR method to design even more powerful, faster-charging and more environmentally friendly batteries.

In 2019, Grey co-founded a company, (Nyobolt), for ultra-fast charging batteries. Another company supplies the NMR measurement technology she designed to laboratories around the world.

To achieve climate goals and transition away from fossil fuels, Grey believes it is vital that “basic research into new battery technologies is already in full swing today – tomorrow will be too late.”

The Körber European Science Prize 2021 will be presented to Professor Clare Grey on 10 September in the Great Festival Hall of Hamburg City Hall. Since 1985, the Körber Foundation has honoured a breakthrough in the physical or life sciences in Europe with the Körber Prize. It is awarded for excellent and innovative research approaches with high application potential. To date, six Körber Prize winners have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

 

The Körber European Science Prize 2021, worth one million euros, is to be awarded to University of Cambridge chemist Professor Clare Grey, one of the UK’s leading battery researchers.

Gabriella BocchettiProfessor Clare Grey


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Study shows brain differences in interpreting physical signals in mental health disorders

13 hours 51 min ago

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, found that the part of the brain which interprets physical signals from the body behaves differently in people with a range of mental health disorders, suggesting that it could be a target for future treatments.

The researchers studied ‘interoception’ – the ability to sense internal conditions in the body – and whether there were any common brain differences during this process in people with mental health disorders. They found that a region of the brain called the dorsal mid-insula showed different activity during interoception across a range of disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders and anxiety disorders.

Many people with mental health disorders experience physical symptoms differently, whether that’s feeling uncomfortably full in anorexia, or feeling like you don’t have enough air in panic disorder.

The results, reported in The American Journal of Psychiatry, show that activity in the dorsal mid-insula could drive these different interpretations of bodily sensations in mental health. Increased awareness of the differences in how people experience physical symptoms could also be useful to those treating mental health disorders.

We all use exteroception – sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch – to navigate daily life. But interoception – the ability to interpret signals from our body – is equally important for survival, even though it often happens subconsciously.

“Interoception is something we are all doing constantly, although we might not be aware of it,” said lead author Dr Camilla Nord from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. “For example, most of us are able to interpret the signals of low blood sugar, such as tiredness or irritability, and know to eat something. However, there are differences in how our brains interpret these signals.”

Differences in interoceptive processes have previously been identified in people with eating disorders, anxiety and depression, panic disorder, addiction and other mental health disorders. Theoretical models have suggested that disrupted cortical processing drives these changes in interoceptive processing, conferring vulnerability to a range of mental health symptoms.

Nord and her colleagues combined brain imaging data from previous studies and compared differences in brain activity during interoception between 626 patients with mental health disorders and 610 healthy controls. “We wanted to find out whether there is something similar happening in the brain in people with different mental disorders, irrespective of their diagnosis,” she said.

Their analysis showed that for patients with bipolar, anxiety, major depression, anorexia and schizophrenia, part of the cerebral cortex called the dorsal mid-insula showed different brain activation when processing pain, hunger and other interoceptive signals when compared to the control group.

The researchers then ran a follow-up analysis and found that the dorsal mid-insula does not overlap with regions of the brain altered by antidepressant drugs or regions altered by psychological therapy, suggesting that it could be studied as a new target for future therapeutics to treat differences in interoception.

“It’s surprising that in spite of the diversity of psychological symptoms, there appears to be a common factor in how physical signals are processed differently by the brain in mental health disorders,” said Nord. “It shows how intertwined physical and mental health are, but also the limitations of our diagnostic system – some important factors in mental health might be ‘transdiagnostic’, that is, found across many diagnoses.”

In future, Dr Nord is planning studies to test whether this disrupted activation could be altered by new treatments for mental health disorders, such as brain stimulation.

The research was supported by NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

Reference:
Camilla L. Nord, Rebecca P. Lawson and Tim Dalgleish. ‘Disrupted dorsal mid-insula activation during interoception across psychiatric disorders.’ The American Journal of Psychiatry (2021). DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20091340

 

Researchers have shown why people with mental health disorders, including anorexia and panic disorders, experience physical signals differently.

In spite of the diversity of psychological symptoms, there appears to be a common factor in how physical signals are processed differently by the brain in mental health disorders: it shows how intertwined physical and mental health areCamilla NordGeralt from PixabayBinary code


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University launches enhanced bursary scheme

Mon, 21/06/2021 - 14:19

The new scheme is being made possible through the generosity of philanthropic donations from alumni and friends of the collegiate University. The Harding Challenge, established by David and Claudia Harding as part of their £100 million gift to Cambridge and St Catharine’s College in February 2019, was designed to underpin this expansion in bursary provision. Far more students will qualify for support since the threshold for eligibility will rise from the current maximum household income of £42,620 to £62,215. The University expects 25 – 30% of students will be eligible for the enhanced support (currently it’s around 20%). Once fully rolled out, around 700 students will also qualify for an additional £1,000 because they were eligible for free school meals.

UK students can apply to the Student Loans Company for a maintenance loan to cover basic living costs. There is widespread take-up of these loans: repayments are linked to future earnings which means they are more like a tax than conventional debt, and they are an invaluable support to making University more affordable for as many students as possible.  However, research conducted by the University suggests many students struggle to meet all their expenses because parents often can’t afford to contribute to the extent that these means-tested loans assume they will. It’s these financial gaps that the new bursary scheme will help to alleviate.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, said:

"This new enhanced bursary scheme, which wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of donors, will help to ease some of our students' financial worries. The scheme’s launch means far more students will be eligible for support. This is particularly relevant now, at a time when many families’ incomes have been affected adversely by the Covid-19 pandemic."

The launch of the enhanced bursary scheme follows a pilot scheme involving 20 Colleges established and largely funded by Trinity College. Students in receipt of these bursaries said they were able to participate more fully in the academic and wider student activities Cambridge has to offer. The awards also had a positive impact on their mental well-being, reducing the anxieties they had about finances. Colleges also noted that there was a marked reduction in applications for hardship funding in-year.

Professor Catherine Barnard, Senior Tutor at Trinity College, said:

"The enhanced bursary scheme is about removing barriers, and helping students fully participate in University life. Our evidence suggests supporting students in this way not only improves their wellbeing but ensures they can thrive while studying at Cambridge."

The University’s Faculty of Education has conducted research to find out how effective this level of support is for students. This found it contributes substantially to their wellbeing, participation in academic life and student societies, and overall student experience.

Under the new scheme, bursaries of up to £3,500 per year will be given to students from households with an assessed income of up to £62,215, without any application needed. Previously students were given support if the assessed income rose to £42,620. The bursary will be tapered so those at the lower end will receive more. For example, all undergraduates from households with assessed incomes below £25,000 will receive the full amount. Those at the top end will receive £100. The amount they receive is a grant and so is non-repayable. Awards will be further enhanced for students who join the University from local authority care or who are estranged from their families. In addition, the scheme will include a supplementary award of £1,000 per year to all low-income students who qualified for free school meals, contributing to a bursary of £4,500 in each year of their undergraduate studies.

A new enhanced bursary scheme is being launched by the University of Cambridge to support undergraduate students facing financial pressures. Over the next ten years, more than £100 million will be awarded to students, across all the Colleges. The additional funding, to help with living costs, will enable students to enjoy the benefits a Cambridge education offers, regardless of their personal financial circumstances. Students will start benefiting from October 2021.

The new bursary scheme, which wouldn't be possible without the generosity of donors, will help to ease some of our students' financial worriesVice-Chancellor, Prof Stephen Toope


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Targeting cellular response to SARS-CoV-2 holds promise as new way to fight infection

Thu, 17/06/2021 - 19:00

When a person is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, it invades their cells and uses them to replicate - which puts the cells under stress. Current approaches to dealing with infection target the virus itself with antiviral drugs. But Cambridge scientists have switched focus to target the body’s cellular response to the virus instead. 

In a new study, published today in the journal PLOS Pathogens, they found that all three branches of a three-pronged signalling pathway called the ‘unfolded protein response’ (UPR) are activated in lab-grown cells infected with SARS-CoV-2. Inhibiting the UPR to restore normal cell function using drugs was also found to significantly reduce virus replication.

“The virus that causes COVID-19 activates a response in our cells - called the UPR - that enables it to replicate,” said Dr Nerea Irigoyen in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pathology, senior author of the report.

She added: “Using drugs we were able to reverse the activation of this specific cellular pathway, and remarkably this reduced virus production inside the cells almost completely, which means the infection could not spread to other cells. This has exciting potential as an anti-viral strategy against SARS-CoV-2.” 

Treatment with a drug that targets one prong of the UPR pathway had some effect in reducing virus replication. But treatment with two drugs together - called Ceapin-A7 and KIRA8 - to simultaneously target two prongs of the pathway reduced virus production in the cells by 99.5%. This is the first study to show that the combination of two drugs has a much greater effect on virus replication in cells than a single drug. 

The approach would not stop a person getting infected with the coronavirus, but the scientists say symptoms would be much milder, and recovery time would be quicker.

Anti-viral drugs currently in use to treat COVID-19, such as remdesivir, target replication of the virus itself. But if the virus develops resistance to these drugs they will no longer work. In contrast, the new treatment targets the response of the infected cells; this will not change even if new variants emerge, because the virus needs this cellular response in order to replicate.

The next step is to test the treatment in mouse models. The scientists also want to see whether it works against other viruses, and illnesses such as pulmonary fibrosis and neurological disorders that also activate the UPR response in cells. 

“We hope this discovery will enable the development a broad-spectrum anti-viral drug, effective in treating infections with other viruses as well as SARS-CoV-2. We’ve already found it has an effect on Zika virus too. It has the potential to have a huge impact,” said Irigoyen.

SARS-CoV-2 is the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the end of 2019 there have been over 150 million cases of the disease worldwide, and over 3 million people have died. 

This research was funded by an Isaac Newton Trust/Wellcome Trust ISSF/University of Cambridge Joint Research Grant.

Reference
Echavarria-Consuegra, L. et al: ‘Manipulation of the unfolded protein response: a pharmacological strategy against coronavirus infection.’ PLOS Pathogens. May 2021. DOI:10.1371/journal.ppat.1009644

 

A new treatment approach focused on fixing cell damage, rather than fighting the virus directly, is effective against SARS-CoV-2 in lab models. If found safe for human use, this anti-viral treatment would make COVID-19 symptoms milder and speed up recovery times.

Credit: NIAIDScanning electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 (orange) emerging from the surface of cells (green) cultured in the lab.


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YesLicense type: Attribution

Apollo Therapeutics launches with £100m investment

Thu, 17/06/2021 - 10:19

A pioneering collaboration to speed development of breakthrough medical discoveries—devised by the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and embraced by pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson Innovation—launched on Thursday as a £100 million biopharmaceutical company.

Apollo Therapeutics, a portfolio-based biopharmaceutical company rapidly advancing potentially transformative treatments, has completed a £100 million financing led by Patient Square Capital and joined by Rock Springs Capital, Reimagined Ventures, and UCL Technology Fund.

The investment will support advancement of Apollo’s robust pipeline into development; expansion of the company’s operations, including establishment of a presence in the Boston, Massachusetts area in the USA; and pursuit of new collaborations globally. Each of the joint venture founders will retain a minority stake in the company.

Conceived in 2011 by the technology transfer offices of three world-leading universities (University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London), Apollo was created to speed the development of therapeutics based on cutting-edge discoveries at the three universities. In 2014, the team pitched the pioneering model to AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson Innovation, which embraced the model.

Professor Andy Neely, Cambridge Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations said: “Apollo’s expanding pipeline of treatments across oncology, major inflammatory disorders and rare disease is an excellent demonstration of why funding, collaboration and the commercialisation of research at UK global research universities is so crucial for the future care of patients, the treatment of disease and the economy.” 

Finalised in late 2015, the joint venture launched in early 2016. In the ensuing years Apollo has sought the best science with the potential to help patients. By bringing funding and industry expertise together with University breakthroughs, Apollo has developed projects to industrial standards and exceeded traditional development benchmarks of capital- and time-efficiency. It has now invested in over 30 projects, some of which have already been successfully licensed. Apollo now launches its next phase as a multinational company.

Established to bridge the gap between deep academic science and eventual patient benefit, the Apollo model will function well as a company. By fostering relationships with top academic scientists and leveraging insights from partners with late-stage development and commercial expertise, Apollo works to develop therapeutics that have transformative potential. It evaluates breakthrough scientific discoveries across multiple criteria, including having a compelling and testable biological hypothesis or having a differentiated mechanism or technology compared to other therapeutics in development or on the market.

Iain Thomas, Head of Life Sciences at Cambridge Enterprise said: “Apollo’s unique, innovative and hugely capital efficient model has been validated by this very significant investment.  Apollo has advanced a fantastic portfolio of programmes more cost effectively and quickly than could have been achieved by traditional grant and single asset investment routes.  PSC’s partners have real knowledge and success in investing in portfolio opportunities, we are delighted they can bring their expertise to Apollo and are joining us as we take science from the bench to patients.”

To advance programmes efficiently, Apollo leverages a portfolio-based model with a centralized team of drug development ‘architects’ working alongside asset-level teams of subject matter experts. Together, these teams are able to evaluate therapeutic programmes rigorously, in an objective, data-driven fashion—prioritising critical experiments to de-risk programmes early. The model allows the company to evaluate programmes comprehensively, while committing minimal spend until biological validation is demonstrated. This capital efficiency allows Apollo to focus on scaling a robust and potentially transformative pipeline, with over 15 therapeutic programmes currently in development.

With proceeds from this financing, Apollo plans to advance its lead therapeutic programmes into clinical development as well as identify new programmes. In addition, the company plans to expand its UK operations in the Cambridge area, as well as in the United States with a new facility in Boston/Cambridge. Apollo’s growing team will also explore additional collaborative relationships with leading academic researchers around the world.

Pioneering collaboration initiated by the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and University College London

Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay


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YesLicense type: AttributionRelated Links: More information from Cambridge Enterprise

Study identifies trigger for ‘head-to-tail’ axis development in human embryo

Thu, 17/06/2021 - 10:06

The second week of gestation represents a critical stage of embryo development, or embryogenesis. Failure of development during this time is one of the major causes of early pregnancy loss. Understanding more about it will help scientists to understand how it can go wrong, and take steps towards being able to fix problems.

The pre-implantation period, before the developing embryo implants into the mother’s womb, has been studied extensively in human embryos in the lab. On the seventh day the embryo must implant into the womb to survive and develop. Very little is known about the development of the human embryo once it implants, because it becomes inaccessible for study.

Pioneering work by Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and her team developed a technique, reported in 2016, to culture human embryos outside the body of the mother beyond implantation. This enabled human embryos to be studied up to day 14 of development for the first time. 

In a new study, the team collaborated with colleagues at the Wellcome Sanger Institute to reveal what happens at the molecular level during this early stage of embryogenesis. Their findings provide the first evidence that a group of cells outside the embryo, known as the hypoblast, send a message to the embryo that initiates the development of the head-to-tail body axis. 

When the body axis begins to form, the symmetrical structure of the embryo starts to change. One end becomes committed to developing into the head end, and the other the ‘tail’. 

The new results, published today in the journal Nature Communications, reveal that the molecular signals involved in the formation of the body axis show similarities to those in animals, despite significant differences in the positioning and organisation of the cells.

“We have revealed the patterns of gene expression in the developing embryo just after it implants in the womb, which reflect the multiple conversations going on between different cell types as the embryo develops through these early stages,” said Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, and senior author of the report.

She added: “We were looking for the gene conversation that will allow the head to start developing in the embryo, and found that it was initiated by cells in the hypoblast – a disc of cells outside the embryo. They send the message to adjoining embryo cells, which respond by saying ‘OK, now we’ll set ourselves aside to develop into the head end.’”

The study identified the gene conversations in the developing embryo by sequencing the code in the thousands of messenger RNA molecules made by individual cells. They captured the evolving molecular profile of the developing embryo after implantation in the womb, revealing the progressive loss of pluripotency (the ability of the embryonic cells to give rise to any cell type of the future organism) as the fates of different cells are determined.

“Our goal has always been to enable insights to very early human embryo development in a dish, to understand how our lives start. By combining our new technology with advanced sequencing methods we have delved deeper into the key changes that take place at this incredible stage of human development, when so many pregnancies unfortunately fail,” said Zernicka-Goetz.

This research was funded by Wellcome. It was carried out with the oversight of the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and with permission from a local research ethics committee.

Reference: Mole, M.A. et al: ‘A single cell characterisation of human embryogenesis identifies pluripotency transitions and putative anterior hypoblast centre.’ Nature Communications, June 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-23758-w 

 

Scientists have identified key molecular events in the developing human embryo between days 7 and 14 - one of the most mysterious, yet critical, stages of our development. 

We have revealed the patterns of gene expression in the developing embryo just after it implants in the wombMagdalena Zernicka-GoetzHuman embryo in the lab 9 days after fertilisation.


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Yes

Teenagers at greatest risk of self-harming could be identified almost a decade earlier

Tue, 15/06/2021 - 07:00

The team, based at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, found that while sleep problems and low self-esteem were common risk factors, there were two distinct profiles of young people who self-harm – one with emotional and behavioural difficulties and a second group without those difficulties, but with different risk factors.

Between one in five and one in seven adolescents in England self-harms, for example by deliberately cutting themselves. While self-harm is a significant risk factor for subsequent suicide attempts, many do not intend suicide but face other harmful outcomes, including repeatedly self-harming, poor mental health, and risky behaviours like substance abuse. Despite its prevalence and lifelong consequences, there has been little progress in the accurate prediction of self-harm.

The Cambridge team identified adolescents who reported self-harm at age 14, from a nationally representative UK birth cohort of approximately 11,000 individuals. They then used a machine learning analysis to identify whether there were distinct profiles of young people who self-harm, with different emotional and behavioural characteristics. They used this information to identify risk factors from early and middle childhood. The results are published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Because the data tracked the participants over time, the researchers were able to distinguish factors that appear alongside reported self-harm behaviour, such as low self-esteem, from those that precede it, such as bullying.

The team identified two distinct subgroups among young people who self-harm, with significant risk factors present as early as age five, nearly a decade before they reported self-harming. While both groups were likely to experience sleep difficulties and low self-esteem reported at age 14, other risk factors differed between the two groups.

The first group showed a long history of poor mental health, as well as bullying before they self-harmed. Their caregivers were more likely to have mental health issues of their own.

For the second group, however, their self-harming behaviour was harder to predict early in childhood. One of the key signs was a greater willingness to take part in risk-taking behaviour, which is linked to impulsivity. Other research suggests these tendencies may predispose the individual towards spending less time to consider alternate coping methods and the consequences of self-harm. Factors related to their relationships with their peers were also important for this subgroup, including feeling less secure with friends and family at age 14 and a greater concern about the feelings of others as a risk factor at age 11.

Stepheni Uh, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and first author of the study, said: “Self-harm is a significant problem among adolescents, so it’s vital that we understand the nuanced nature of self-harm, especially in terms of the different profiles of young people who self-harm and their potentially different risk factors.

“We found two distinct subgroups of young people who self-harm. The first was much as expected – young people who experience symptoms of depression and low self-esteem, face problems with their families and friends, and are bullied. The second, much larger group was much more surprising as they don’t show the usual traits that are associated with those who self-harm.”

The researchers say that their findings suggest that it may be possible to predict which individuals are most at risk of self-harm up to a decade ahead of time, providing a window to intervene.

Dr Duncan Astle said: “The current approach to supporting mental health in young people is to wait until problems escalate. Instead, we need a much better evidence base so we can identify who is at most risk of mental health difficulties in the future, and why. This offers us the opportunity to be proactive, and minimise difficulties before they start.

“Our results suggest that boosting younger children’s self-esteem, making sure that schools implement anti-bullying measures, and providing advice on sleep training, could all help reduce self-harm levels years later.

“Our research gives us potential ways of helping this newly-identified second subgroup. Given that they experience difficulties with their peers and are more willing to engage in risky behaviours, then providing access to self-help and problem-solving or conflict regulation programmes may be effective.”

Professor Tamsin Ford from the Department of Psychiatry added: “We might also help at-risk adolescents by targeting interventions at mental health leaders and school-based mental health teams. Teachers are often the first people to hear about self-harm but some lack confidence in how to respond. Providing them with training could make a big difference.”

The research was supported by the Gates Cambridge Trust, Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the UK Medical Research Council.

Reference
Uh, S et al. Two pathways to self-harm in adolescence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; 14 June 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2021.03.010

Researchers have identified two subgroups of adolescents who self-harm and have shown that it is possible to predict those individuals at greatest risk almost a decade before they begin self-harming.

The current approach to supporting mental health in young people is to wait until problems escalate. Instead, we need a much better evidence base so we can identify who is at most risk of mental health difficulties in the future, and whyDuncan AstleAdrien OlichonA man sitting in front of a screen


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YesLicense type: Public Domain

New risk calculator to help save many more lives from heart attack and stroke

Mon, 14/06/2021 - 00:12

The risk calculator, SCORE2, will be adopted by the upcoming European Guidelines on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Clinical Practice, and enables doctors across Europe to predict who’s at risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years with greater accuracy.

The researchers say this new prediction tool will help save many more people across Europe from having a potentially deadly heart attack or stroke, ultimately saving lives. People who are flagged as having an increased risk can be put on personalised preventative treatment, such a statins, or will receive lifestyle advice to lower their risk.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge played a leading role in a major collaborative effort involving around 200 investigators to develop SCORE2. Researchers across Europe analysed data from nearly 700,000 participants - mostly middle-aged - from 45 different studies. The tool has also been tailored for use in different European countries.

Participants had no prior history of heart and circulatory disease when they were recruited to the studies, and in the 10 years they were followed up, 30,000 had a ‘cardiovascular event’ – including fatal or non-fatal heart attack or stroke.

The risk tool was then statistically ‘recalibrated’, by using regional-specific cardiovascular and risk factor data from 10.8 million people, to more accurately estimate cardiovascular risk for populations split into four European risk regions. The tool uses known risk factors for heart and circulatory diseases such as age, sex, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and smoking.

This is a much-needed upgrade from the previous prediction tool that was developed using data before 1986 and underestimated the cardiovascular risk in some countries. The new SCORE2 risk calculator now accounts for current trends in heart and circulatory diseases, can predict both fatal and non-fatal conditions and is adaptable to countries with different levels of risk.

The researchers say that this upgrade will better estimate the cardiovascular risk amongst younger people, and will improve how treatment is tailored for older people and those in high-risk regions across Europe.

Professor Emanuele Di Angelantonio at the University of Cambridge British Heart Foundation (BHF) Centre of Research Excellence, said: “This risk tool is much more powerful and superior than what doctors have used for decades. It will fit seamlessly into current prevention programmes with substantial real-world impact by improving the prevention of cardiovascular diseases across Europe before they strike.”

Dr Lisa Pennells, also at Cambridge’s BHF Centre of Research Excellence, said: “This project was a highly collaborative effort that has brought together key experts and extensive data sources to develop improved risk prediction tools for cardiovascular disease for use across the UK and Europe.

“A key feature is that our calculators are relevant to current day rates of cardiovascular disease in different regions of Europe. Importantly, our methods allow them to be easily updated using routinely collected data in the future to ensure they stay relevant as trends in heart and circulatory diseases change.”

This study was carried out by the SCORE2 Working Group and the European Society of Cardiology Cardiovascular Risk Collaboration. It was supported by organisations including the British Heart Foundation, the Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and Health Data Research UK.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the BHF and cardiologist, said: “Heart and circulatory diseases are the world’s biggest killers, impacting the lives of 7.6 million people across the UK alone.

“This new risk tool is a major advance and will save many more people from developing heart attacks, stroke and heart disease, all of which develop silently over many years and strike without warning. It will be the new gold standard for doctors to determine which patients are at the highest risk of these conditions, and enable tailored treatment and lifestyle advice to be given much earlier.”

Reference
SCORE2 risk prediction algorithms: revised models to estimate 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease in Europe. European Heart Journal; 14 June 2021; DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehab309

Adapted from a press release from the British Heart Foundation

A new risk calculator will better predict people at high risk of heart and circulatory diseases years before they strike, and is ready for use across the UK and Europe, according to research published today in the journal European Heart Journal.

This risk tool... will fit seamlessly into current prevention programmes with substantial real-world impact by improving the prevention of cardiovascular diseases across Europe before they strikeEmanuele Di AngelantonioPexelsMan clutching his heart


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Cambridge figures' contributions recognised in Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021

Fri, 11/06/2021 - 22:30

Sir John Aston, Harding Professor of Statistics in Public Life, has been knighted for services to Statistics and Public Policymaking.

A world-renowned statistician working in the Department of Pure Maths and Mathematical Statistics, Sir John has worked to promote trust in the use of statistics and quantitative evidence. As Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser, he championed the use of science and research across the department, and his work has contributed to both national security and public safety. He has played a central role in the Home Office’s response to COVID-19, ensuring the Home Secretary was briefed and the latest scientific advice was available to be used. 

Sir John’s analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data, which gives information about brain activity, has become a standard reference, supporting scientific research.

Sir Andy Hopper, Professor of Computer Technology in the Department of Computer Science and Technology, has been knighted for services to Computer Technology. He is Treasurer and Vice-President of the Royal Society, and has made a major impact on the modern digital world through pioneering work in computer systems and architectures.

The work of Sir Andy and his team on computing and sustainability is helping to tackle global problems such as biodiversity and climate change. He has a strong commitment to diversity: as Head of the Department of Computer Science and Technology in Cambridge for 14 years, he helped increase the number of women appointed to the staff from a handful to over half. The culture that was created also helped to establish more than 200 start-up businesses. 

“The University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Cluster have provided a wonderfully collaborative and flexible framework within which I have had the good fortune to work for 47 years,” he said.

Professor William Sutherland, who holds the Miriam Rothschild Chair in Conservation Biology in the Department of Zoology, and is a Professorial Fellow at St Catharine’s College, has been awarded a CBE for services to Evidence-based Conservation.

Professor Sutherland is one of the world’s leading conservation scientists, carrying out extensive research on ecological processes, predicting the impacts of environmental change, horizon scanning to identify forthcoming issues and developing novel processes for integrating science and policy. He runs the Biosecurity Research Initiative (BioRISC) at St Catharine's, and regularly advises government as well as conservation organisations, such as Natural England and The National Trust. Professor Sutherland, who was President of the British Ecological Society, was also part of a team that created the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, which works to identify and research global environmental problems, finding solutions and delivering on-the-ground improvements for species and habitats worldwide.

Professor James Wood, Head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine, Alborada Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science, and Fellow of Wolfson College, has been awarded an OBE for services to Veterinary Science. 

Professor Wood’s research focuses on zoonoses - diseases transmissible from animals to humans – in particular bovine tuberculosis in the UK, Ethiopia and India, and its impact on milk-producing cattle and buffalo. His work also focuses on wildlife-associated emerging viral infections in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Ghana. Professor Wood is on Defra’s Science Advisory Council and he is a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Director at the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, and Fellow of Girton College, has received an OBE for services to the COVID-19 Response.

Dr Fitzgerald was called upon in Spring 2020 to help with the SAGE Environmental Modelling Group. He co-authored the CIBSE Emerging from Lockdown guidance, which included advice on ventilation in buildings. He is also serving on a range of other government bodies as part of the response to COVID-19, such as the DCMS Venues Steering Group, the Science Board to the Events Research Programme (which included the 2021 events at the Circus Nightclub in Liverpool and FA Cup Final), and the Aerosol Generating Procedures panel.

Dr Arif Ahmed, University Reader in Philosophy, and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, has received an MBE for services to Education.

Dr Ahmed is recognised for his contribution to the University Statement on Freedom of Speech. He raised concerns that including a requirement to be respectful of people's opinions and identities risked legitimising future censorship, which he saw as a threat to the free speech the University was trying to protect. An amendment was put forward stating that free speech should operate without fear of intolerance, which, along with other amendments, was passed by the Regent House - the University's governing body. Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said the outcome was an emphatic reaffirmation of free speech in the University. 

Amika George, a History undergraduate at Murray Edwards College, received an MBE for services to Education. Amika started the not-for-profit Free Periods campaign group, having read that some girls in the UK were missing school because they could not afford to buy sanitary products. She launched an online petition lobbying the government to provide free tampons and sanitary pads for girls from low income families. The campaign has gained considerable momentum and support, and in 2019, the Government committed to funding period products in every single state school and college in England. The scheme began in 2020.

Aimee Durning, a Teaching Assistant at the University of Cambridge Primary School, has received an MBE for services to Education.

Aimee used the power of stories and reading to help young people and their families cope during the pandemic, through a book club she had previously set up, making sure they had teaching resources, including – of course – books. Aimee also set up a regional network for TAs in the East of England to share best practices and develop their skills, particularly in helping vulnerable children, and has written a series of books on the subject.  She plans to use her MBE as a platform to extend the TA network to a national level, to help support their work in hundreds more schools.

The achievements and contributions of individuals from the University of Cambridge and its Colleges have been recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list.


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Astronomers spot a ‘blinking giant’ near the centre of the Galaxy

Fri, 11/06/2021 - 08:00

An international team of astronomers observed the star, VVV-WIT-08, decreasing in brightness by a factor of 30, so that it nearly disappeared from the sky. While many stars change in brightness because they pulsate or are eclipsed by another star in a binary system, it’s exceptionally rare for a star to become fainter over a period of several months and then brighten again.

The researchers believe that VVV-WIT-08 may belong to a new class of ‘blinking giant’ binary star system, where a giant star ⎼ 100 times larger than the Sun ⎼ is eclipsed once every few decades by an as-yet unseen orbital companion. The companion, which may be another star or a planet, is surrounded by an opaque disc, which covers the giant star, causing it to disappear and reappear in the sky. The study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The discovery was led by Dr Leigh Smith from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, working with scientists at the University of Edinburgh, the University of Hertfordshire, the University of Warsaw in Poland and Universidad Andres Bello in Chile.

“It’s amazing that we just observed a dark, large and elongated object pass between us and the distant star and we can only speculate what its origin is,” said co-author Dr Sergey Koposov from the University of Edinburgh.

Since the star is located in a dense region of the Milky Way, the researchers considered whether some unknown dark object could have simply drifted in front of the giant star by chance. However, simulations showed that there would have to be an implausibly large number of dark bodies floating around the Galaxy for this scenario to be likely.

One other star system of this sort has been known for a long time. The giant star Epsilon Aurigae is partly eclipsed by a huge disc of dust every 27 years, but only dims by about 50%. A second example, TYC 2505-672-1, was found a few years ago, and holds the current record for the eclipsing binary star system with the longest orbital period ⎼ 69 years ⎼ a record for which VVV-WIT-08 is currently a contender.

The UK-based team has also found two more of these peculiar giant stars in addition to VVV-WIT-08, suggesting that these may be a new class of ‘blinking giant’ stars for astronomers to investigate.

VVV-WIT-08 was found by the VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea survey (VVV), a project using the British-built VISTA telescope in Chile and operated by the European Southern Observatory, that has been observing the same one billion stars for nearly a decade to search for examples with varying brightness in the infrared part of the spectrum.

Project co-leader Professor Philip Lucas from the University of Hertfordshire said, “Occasionally we find variable stars that don’t fit into any established category, which we call ‘what-is-this?’, or ‘WIT’ objects. We really don’t know how these blinking giants came to be. It’s exciting to see such discoveries from VVV after so many years planning and gathering the data.”

While VVV-WIT-08 was discovered using VVV data, the dimming of the star was also observed by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE), a long-running observation campaign run by the University of Warsaw. OGLE makes more frequent observations, but closer to the visible part of the spectrum. These frequent observations were key for modelling VVV-WIT-08, and they showed that the giant star dimmed by the same amount in both the visible and infrared light.

There now appear to be around half a dozen potential known star systems of this type, containing giant stars and large opaque discs. “There are certainly more to be found, but the challenge now is in figuring out what the hidden companions are, and how they came to be surrounded by discs, despite orbiting so far from the giant star,” said Smith. “In doing so, we might learn something new about how these kinds of systems evolve.”

 

Reference:
Leigh C. Smith et al. ‘VVV-WIT-08: the giant star that blinked.’ Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (2021). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/stab1211

Astronomers have spotted a giant ‘blinking’ star towards the centre of the Milky Way, more than 25,000 light years away.

There are certainly more to be found, but the challenge now is in figuring out what the hidden companions are, and how they came to be surrounded by discs, despite orbiting so far from the giant starLeigh SmithAmanda SmithArtist's impression of the binary star VVV-WIT-08


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Yes

‘Vegan spider silk’ provides sustainable alternative to single-use plastics

Thu, 10/06/2021 - 10:00

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, created a polymer film by mimicking the properties of spider silk, one of the strongest materials in nature. The new material is as strong as many common plastics in use today and could replace plastic in many common household products.

The material was created using a new approach for assembling plant proteins into materials that mimic silk on a molecular level. The energy-efficient method, which uses sustainable ingredients, results in a plastic-like free-standing film, which can be made at industrial scale. Non-fading ‘structural’ colour can be added to the polymer, and it can also be used to make water-resistant coatings.

The material is home compostable, whereas other types of bioplastics require industrial composting facilities to degrade. In addition, the Cambridge-developed material requires no chemical modifications to its natural building blocks, so that it can safely degrade in most natural environments.

The new product will be commercialised by Xampla, a University of Cambridge spin-out company developing replacements for single-use plastic and microplastics. The company will introduce a range of single-use sachets and capsules later this year, which can replace the plastic used in everyday products like dishwasher tablets and laundry detergent capsules. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

For many years, Professor Tuomas Knowles in Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry has been researching the behaviour of proteins. Much of his research has been focused on what happens when proteins misfold or ‘misbehave’, and how this relates to health and human disease, primarily Alzheimer’s disease.

“We normally investigate how functional protein interactions allow us to stay healthy and how irregular interactions are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Knowles, who led the current research. “It was a surprise to find our research could also address a big problem in sustainability: that of plastic pollution.”

As part of their protein research, Knowles and his group became interested in why materials like spider silk are so strong when they have such weak molecular bonds. “We found that one of the key features that gives spider silk its strength is the hydrogen bonds are arranged regularly in space and at a very high density,” said Knowles.

Co-author Dr Marc Rodriguez Garcia, a postdoctoral researcher in Knowles’ group who is now Head of R&D at Xampla, began looking at how to replicate this regular self-assembly in other proteins. Proteins have a propensity for molecular self-organisation and self-assembly, and plant proteins, in particular, are abundant and can be sourced sustainably as by-products of the food industry.

“Very little is known about the self-assembly of plant proteins, and it’s exciting to know that by filling this knowledge gap we can find alternatives to single-use plastics,” said PhD candidate Ayaka Kamada, the paper’s first author.

The researchers successfully replicated the structures found on spider silk by using soy protein isolate, a protein with a completely different composition. “Because all proteins are made of polypeptide chains, under the right conditions we can cause plant proteins to self-assemble just like spider silk,” said Knowles, who is also a Fellow of St John's College. “In a spider, the silk protein is dissolved in an aqueous solution, which then assembles into an immensely strong fibre through a spinning process which requires very little energy.”

“Other researchers have been working directly with silk materials as a plastic replacement, but they’re still an animal product,” said Rodriguez Garcia. “In a way, we’ve come up with ‘vegan spider silk’ – we’ve created the same material without the spider.”

Any replacement for plastic requires another polymer – the two in nature that exist in abundance are polysaccharides and polypeptides. Cellulose and nanocellulose are polysaccharides and have been used for a range of applications, but often require some form of cross-linking to form strong materials. Proteins self-assemble and can form strong materials like silk without any chemical modifications, but they are much harder to work with.

The researchers used soy protein isolate (SPI) as their test plant protein, since it is readily available as a by-product of soybean oil production. Plant proteins such as SPI are poorly soluble in water, making it hard to control their self-assembly into ordered structures.

The new technique uses an environmentally friendly mixture of acetic acid and water, combined with ultrasonication and high temperatures, to improve the solubility of the SPI. This method produces protein structures with enhanced inter-molecular interactions guided by the hydrogen bond formation. In a second step, the solvent is removed, which results in a water-insoluble film.

The material has a performance equivalent to high-performance engineering plastics such as low-density polyethylene. Its strength lies in the regular arrangement of the polypeptide chains, meaning there is no need for chemical cross-linking, which is frequently used to improve the performance and resistance of biopolymer films. The most commonly used cross-linking agents are non-sustainable and can even be toxic, whereas no toxic elements are required for the Cambridge-developed technique.

“This is the culmination of something we’ve been working on for over ten years, which is understanding how nature generates materials from proteins,” said Knowles. “We didn’t set out to solve a sustainability challenge -- we were motivated by curiosity as to how to create strong materials from weak interactions.”

“The key breakthrough here is being able to control self-assembly, so we can now create high-performance materials,” said Rodriguez Garcia. “It’s exciting to be part of this journey. There is a huge, huge issue of plastic pollution in the world, and we are in the fortunate position to be able to do something about it.”

Xampla's technology has been patented by Cambridge Enterprise, the University's commercialisation arm. Cambridge Enterprise and Amadeus Capital Partners co-led a £2 million seed funding round for Xampla, joined by Sky Ocean Ventures and the University of Cambridge Enterprise Fund VI, which is managed by Parkwalk.

Reference:
A. Kamada et al. ‘Self-assembly of plant proteins into high-performance multifunctional nanostructured films.’ Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-23813-6

Researchers have created a plant-based, sustainable, scalable material that could replace single-use plastics in many consumer products.

It was a surprise to find our research could also address a big problem in sustainability: that of plastic pollutionTuomas KnowlesXamplaFood packaging incorporating Xampla's plant-based plastic


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Yes

England on track to achieve elimination of HIV transmission by 2030 as model shows sharp decrease in HIV incidence

Thu, 10/06/2021 - 09:20

To manage the HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men (MSM) in England, enhanced testing and earlier treatment strategies were scaled-up between 2011 and 2015 and supplemented from 2015 by pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). The researchers examined the effect of these interventions on the number of new infections and investigated whether the United Nations (UN) targets for HIV control and elimination of HIV transmission by 2030 might be within reach among MSM in England.

A complexity in this assessment is that HIV infections are not observed. Routine surveillance collects data on new HIV diagnoses, but trends in new diagnoses alone can be misleading as they can represent infections that occurred many years previously and depend on the testing behaviour of infected individuals.

To estimate new HIV infections among adult MSM (age 15 years and above) over a 10-year period between 2009 and 2018, the researchers used a novel statistical model that used data on HIV and AIDS diagnoses routinely collected via the national HIV and AIDS Reporting System in England, and knowledge on the progression of HIV. Estimated trends in new infections were then extrapolated to understand the likelihood of achieving the UN elimination target defined as less than one newly acquired infection per 10,000 MSM per year, by 2030.

The peak in the number of new HIV infections in MSM in England is estimated to have occurred between 2012 and 2013, followed by a steep decrease from 2,770 new infections in 2013 to 1,740 in 2015, and a further steadier decrease from 2016, down to 854. The decline was consistent across all age groups but was particularly marked in MSM aged 25–34 years, and slowest in those aged 45 years or older. Importantly, this decrease began before the widespread roll-out of PrEP in 2016, indicating the success of testing and treatment as infection prevention measures among MSM in England.

Through extrapolation, the researchers calculated a 40% likelihood of England reaching the UN elimination target by 2030 and identified relevant age-specific targeting of further prevention efforts (i.e., to MSM aged ≥45 years) to increase this likelihood.

Senior author, Professor Daniela De Angelis, Deputy Director of the MRC Biostatistics Unit, University of Cambridge, said: “This is very good news and suggests that prevention measures adopted in England from 2011 have been effective. With the rollout of PrEP, England looks on course to meet the goal of zero transmissions by 2030. Our study also shows the value of regular estimation of HIV incidence to recognise and respond appropriately to changes in the current downward trend. The challenge now is to achieve these reductions in all groups at risk for HIV acquisition.”

Valerie Delpech, Head of National HIV Surveillance at Public Health England, said: “We have made good progress towards ending HIV transmission by 2030 in England. Frequent HIV testing and the use of PrEP amongst people most at risk of HIV, together with prompt treatment among those diagnosed, are key to ending HIV transmission by 2030. 

“You can benefit from life-saving HIV treatments if you are diagnosed with HIV and it also means you cannot pass the virus on.

“HIV and STI tests are still available through sexual health clinics during the COVID pandemic. Many clinics offer online testing throughout the year – people can order tests on clinic websites, take them in the privacy of their own home, return by post and receive results via text, phone call or post.”

This research is funded by the UK Medical Research Council, UK National Institute of Health Research Health Protection Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation, and Public Health England.

Reference
Brizzi, F et al. Tracking elimination of HIV transmission in men who have sex with men in England: a modelling study. Lancet HIV, 10 June 2021; DOI: 10.1016/ S2352-3018(21)00044-8

The annual number of new HIV infections among men who have sex with men in England is likely to have fallen dramatically, from 2,770 in 2013 to 854 in 2018, showing elimination of HIV transmission by 2030 to be within reach – suggests work by researchers from the MRC Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge and Public Health England, published in The Lancet HIV.

This is very good news and suggests that prevention measures adopted in England from 2011 have been effectiveDaniela De AngelisJason#FreedomTo Know my HIV Status


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People more afraid of catching COVID-19 are more judgemental, study finds

Wed, 09/06/2021 - 00:01

The researchers say their findings are evidence that our morality is shaped by various emotions and intuitions, of which concerns about health and safety are prominent. This means that our judgements of wrongdoing are not completely rational.

The study, published today in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, did not focus on behaviours relating to the pandemic itself - such as social distancing - but considered a wide range of moral transgressions.

Between March and May 2020, over 900 study participants in the USA were presented with a series of scenarios and asked to rate them on a scale from ‘not at all wrong’ to ‘extremely wrong’. This enabled the researchers to measure participants’ responses across five key moral principles: harm, fairness, in-group loyalty, deference to authority, and purity.

Example scenarios include one of loyalty: ‘You see a man leaving his family business to go work for their main competitor’; and one of fairness: ‘You see a tenant bribing a landlord to be the first to get their apartment repainted.’

People who were more worried about catching COVID-19 judged the behaviours in these scenarios to be more wrong than those who were less worried.

“There is no rational reason to be more judgemental of others because you are worrying about getting sick during the pandemic,” said Professor Simone Schnall in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, senior author of the report.

She added: “These influences on judgements happen outside of our conscious awareness. If we feel that our wellbeing is threatened by the coronavirus, we are also likely to feel more threatened by other people’s wrong-doing – it’s an emotional link.”

The findings contribute to a growing body of evidence of a link between physical disgust – an emotion designed to keep us from harm – and moral condemnation. 

“Disgust is an emotion we think evolved to protect us from harm – avoiding a filthy toilet that might contaminate us with disease, for example. But now we apply it to social situations too, and can feel physically jeopardised by other people’s behaviour,” said Robert Henderson, a PhD student and Gates Scholar in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and first author of the report.

He added: “The link between being concerned about COVID-19 and moral condemnation is about risks to wellbeing. If you’re more conscious of health risks, you’re also more conscious of social risks – people whose behaviour could inflict harm upon you.”

This research was funded by the Gates Foundation Cambridge and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

Reference
Henderson, R.K., & Schnall, S. ‘Disease and Disapproval: COVID-19 Concern is Related to Greater Moral Condemnation.’ Evolutionary Psychology. May 2021. DOI: 10.1177/14747049211021524

Researchers studying how we make moral judgements found that people more concerned about catching COVID-19 were more disapproving of the wrong-doings of others, whatever they were doing wrong.

There is no rational reason to be more judgemental of others because you are worrying about getting sick during the pandemicSimone SchnallCreative Commons Attribution 2.0Legal Gavel


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Scientists can predict which women will have serious pregnancy complications

Tue, 08/06/2021 - 17:01

Nearly all of the organ systems of the mother’s body need to alter their function during pregnancy so that the baby can grow. If the mother’s body cannot properly adapt to the growing baby this leads to major and common issues including fetal growth restriction, fetal over-growth, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia – a life-threatening high blood pressure in the mother. 

Many of these complications lead to difficult labours for women with more medical intervention and lifelong issues for the baby including diabetes, heart issues and obesity. 

Pregnancy disorders affect around one in ten pregnant women, but current methods to diagnose them are not sensitive or reliable enough to identify all at-risk pregnancies.

Now scientists have found a way to test hormone levels in the placenta to predict which women will have serious pregnancy complications. Their study is published today in the journal Nature Communications Biology

“We found that hormonal biomarkers from the placenta could indicate which women would have pregnancy complications,” said Dr Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, who led the study.

She added: “We found that these hormonal biomarkers are present from the first trimester of pregnancy. This is a highly important finding given that pregnancy disorders affect around one in ten pregnant women and are often diagnosed too late, when the complications are already wreaking havoc on the mother’s body and the fetal development.”

Using mouse models, researchers looked at the proteins made by the placenta and compared them to blood samples from women who had uneventful pregnancies and those who developed gestational diabetes. The team developed new methods to isolate and study the endocrine cells in the mouse placenta because these cells are responsible for secreting hormones during pregnancy. 

They profiled the placenta to identify the hormones that are secreted to create a comprehensive map of proteins in the mysterious organ. The mouse model map of hormonal proteins from the placenta was then compared with datasets from studies of the human placenta and pregnancy outcomes and researchers discovered a lot of biological overlap. 

Dr Sferruzzi-Perri said: “We found that around a third of the proteins we identified changed in women during pregnancies with disorders. Using a small study to test if these placental proteins will have some clinical value, we also discovered that abnormal levels of hormones were present in the mother’s blood as early as the first trimester – week 12 of gestation – in women who developed gestational diabetes, a pregnancy complication usually diagnosed at 24-28 weeks. 

“We also identified several specific transcription factors – proteins within the cell that turn on or off genes – that are likely to govern the production of placental hormones which have important implications for understanding how we may improve pregnancy outcomes.”

The scientists explored whether these genetic biomarkers were detectable during pregnancy and used a study that tracked pregnancy outcomes in women at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. They found that blood samples showed these biomarkers in early pregnancy which could lead to earlier diagnosis of complications allowing treatment to begin more quickly.

Dr Claire Meek, a diabetes in pregnancy physician and researcher at Addenbrooke’s, said: “This pregnancy-induced form of diabetes causes accelerated growth of the baby and complications at the time of delivery. Unfortunately, some women already have signs of a big baby at the time of diagnosis at 28 weeks. This new test might be able to identify gestational diabetes earlier in pregnancy, providing opportunities to prevent the disease, or to protect mums and babies from the most harmful complications.” 

Dr Sferruzzi-Perri said: “This work provides new hope that a better understanding of the placenta will result in safer, healthier pregnancies for mothers and babies. Our team is now working to assess whether these discoveries could improve clinical care in future, either through earlier diagnosis or to provide new opportunities to treat these pregnancy complications by targeting the placenta.”

The placenta is a complex biological organ. It forms and grows from the fertilised egg, and attaches to the wall of the uterus. It allows nutrients and oxygen to flow from mother to baby, and removes fetal waste products. Despite its importance, the placenta is a very misunderstood organ and is notoriously difficult to study in pregnant women. But its ability to function properly is vital as it impacts on pregnancy outcomes and the lifelong health of mother and child.

The placenta develops during pregnancy and connects the developing baby to the mother. It serves as the lungs, kidneys, gut and liver for growing babies and carries oxygen and nutrients to the fetus whilst secreting hormones and discarding waste.

Reference

Napso, T. et al. Placental secretome characterization identified candidates for pregnancy complications. Nature Communications Biology, June 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-021-02214-x

Adapted from a press release by St John's College, Cambridge

 

Women who will develop potentially life-threatening disorders during pregnancy can be identified early when hormone levels in the placenta are tested, a new study has shown.

This work provides new hope that a better understanding of the placenta will result in safer, healthier pregnancies for mothers and babies.Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri Fishman64 at Shutterstock.comPregnancy scan


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YesLicense type: Attribution

Atom swapping could lead to ultra-bright, flexible next generation LEDs

Mon, 07/06/2021 - 16:25

The researchers, led by the University of Cambridge and the Technical University of Munich, found that by swapping one out of every one thousand atoms of one material for another, they were able to triple the luminescence of a new material class of light emitters known as halide perovskites.  

This ‘atom swapping’, or doping, causes the charge carriers to get stuck in a specific part of the material’s crystal structure, where they recombine and emit light. The results, reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, could be useful for low-cost printable and flexible LED lighting, displays for smartphones or cheap lasers.

Many everyday applications now use light-emitting devices (LEDs), such as domestic and commercial lighting, TV screens, smartphones and laptops. The main advantage of LEDs is they consume far less energy than older technologies.

Ultimately, also the entirety of our worldwide communication via the internet is driven by optical signals from very bright light sources that within optical fibres carry information at the speed of light across the globe.

The team studied a new class of semiconductors called halide perovskites in the form of nanocrystals which measure only about a ten-thousandth of the thickness of a human hair. These ‘quantum dots’ are highly luminescent materials: the first high-brilliance QLED TVs incorporating quantum dots recently came onto the market.

The Cambridge researchers, working with Daniel Congreve’s group at Harvard, who are experts in the fabrication of quantum dots, have now greatly improved the light emission from these nanocrystals. They substituted one out of every one thousand atoms with another – swapping lead for manganese ions – and found the luminescence of the quantum dots tripled.

A detailed investigation using laser spectroscopy revealed the origin of this observation. “We found that the charges collect together in the regions of the crystals that we doped,” said Sascha Feldmann from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, the study’s first author. “Once localised, those energetic charges can meet each other and recombine to emit light in a very efficient manner.”

“We hope this fascinating discovery: that even smallest changes to the chemical composition can greatly enhance the material properties, will pave the way to cheap and ultrabright LED displays and lasers in the near future,” said senior author Felix Deschler, who is jointly affiliated at the Cavendish and the Walter Schottky Institute at the Technical University of Munich.

In the future, the researchers hope to identify even more efficient dopants which will help make these advanced light technologies accessible to every part of the world.

 

Reference:
Sascha Feldmann et al. ‘Charge carrier localization in doped perovskite nanocrystals enhances radiative recombination.’, Journal of the American Chemical Society (2021). DOI: 10.1021/jacs.1c01567

An international group of researchers has developed a new technique that could be used to make more efficient low-cost light-emitting materials that are flexible and can be printed using ink-jet techniques.

Ella Maru StudioArtist’s impression of glowing halide perovskite nanocrystals


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Yes

Experiment evaluates the effect of human decisions on climate reconstructions

Mon, 07/06/2021 - 10:21

The experiment, designed and run by researchers from the University of Cambridge, had multiple research groups from around the world use the same raw tree-ring data to reconstruct temperature changes over the past 2,000 years.

While each of the reconstructions clearly showed that recent warming due to anthropogenic climate change is unprecedented in the past two thousand years, there were notable differences in variance, amplitude and sensitivity, which can be attributed to decisions made by the researchers who built the individual reconstructions.

Professor Ulf Büntgen from the University of Cambridge, who led the research, said that the results are “important for transparency and truth – we believe in our data, and we’re being open about the decisions that any climate scientist has to make when building a reconstruction or model.”

To improve the reliability of climate reconstructions, the researchers suggest that teams make multiple reconstructions at once so that they can be seen as an ensemble. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Information from tree rings is the main way that researchers reconstruct past climate conditions at annual resolutions: as distinctive as a fingerprint, the rings formed in trees outside the tropics are annually precise growth layers. Each ring can tell us something about what conditions were like in a particular growing season, and by combining data from many trees of different ages, scientists are able to reconstruct past climate conditions going back hundreds and even thousands of years.

Reconstructions of past climate conditions are useful as they can place current climate conditions or future projections in the context of past natural variability. The challenge with a climate reconstruction is that – absent a time machine – there is no way to confirm it is correct.

“While the information contained in tree rings remains constant, humans are the variables: they may use different techniques or choose a different subset of data to build their reconstruction,” said Büntgen, who is based at Cambridge’s Department of Geography, and is also affiliated with the CzechGlobe Centre in Brno, Czech Republic. “With any reconstruction, there’s a question of uncertainty ranges: how certain you are about a certain result. A lot of work has gone into trying to quantify uncertainties in a statistical way, but what hasn’t been studied is the role of decision-making.

“It’s not the case that there is one single truth – every decision we make is subjective to a greater or lesser extent. Scientists aren’t robots, and we don’t want them to be, but it’s important to learn where the decisions are made and how they affect the outcome.”

Büntgen and his colleagues devised an experiment to test how decision-making affects climate reconstructions. They sent raw tree ring data to 15 research groups around the world and asked them to use it to develop the best possible large-scale climate reconstruction for summer temperatures in the Northern hemisphere over past 2000 years.

“Everything else was up to them – it may sound trivial, but this sort of experiment had never been done before,” said Büntgen.

Each of the groups came up with a different reconstruction, based on the decisions they made along the way: the data they chose or the techniques they used. For example, one group may have used instrumental target data from June, July and August, while another may have only used the mean of July and August only.

The main differences in the reconstructions were those of amplitude in the data: exactly how warm was the Medieval warming period, or how much cooler a particular summer was after a large volcanic eruption.

Büntgen stresses that each of the reconstructions showed the same overall trends: there were periods of warming in the 3rd century, as well as between the 10th and 12th century; they all showed abrupt summer cooling following clusters of large volcanic eruptions in the 6th, 15th and 19th century; and they all showed that the recent warming since the 20th and 21st century is unprecedented in the past 2000 years.

“You think if you have the start with the same data, you will end up with the same result, but climate reconstruction doesn’t work like that,” said Büntgen. “All the reconstructions point in the same direction, and none of the results oppose one another, but there are differences, which must be attributed to decision-making.”

So, how will we know whether to trust a particular climate reconstruction in future? In a time where experts are routinely challenged, or dismissed entirely, how can we be sure of what is true? One answer may be to note each point where a decision is made, consider the various options, and produce multiple reconstructions. This would of course mean more work for climate scientists, but it could be a valuable check to acknowledge how decisions affect outcomes.

Another way to make climate reconstructions more robust is for groups to collaborate and view all their reconstructions together, as an ensemble. “In almost any scientific field, you can point to a single study or result that tells you what to hear,” he said. “But when you look at the body of scientific evidence, with all its nuances and uncertainties, you get a clearer overall picture.”

Reference:
Ulf Büntgen et al.’ The influence of decision-making in tree ring-based climate reconstructions.’ Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-23627-6

The first double-blind experiment analysing the role of human decision-making in climate reconstructions has found that it can lead to substantially different results.

Scientists aren’t robots, and we don’t want them to be, but it’s important to learn where the decisions are made and how they affect the outcomeUlf BüntgenHrafn ÓskarssonSubfossil trees preserved in Iceland


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Yes

Ultra-high-density hard drives made with graphene store ten times more data

Fri, 04/06/2021 - 14:19

The study, published in Nature Communications, was carried out in collaboration with teams at the University of Exeter, India, Switzerland, Singapore, and the US.

HDDs first appeared in the 1950s, but their use as storage devices in personal computers only took off from the mid-1980s. They have become ever smaller in size, and denser in terms of the number of stored bytes. While solid state drives are popular for mobile devices, HDDs continue to be used to store files in desktop computers, largely due to their favourable cost to produce and purchase.

HDDs contain two major components: platters and a head. Data are written on the platters using a magnetic head, which moves rapidly above them as they spin. The space between head and platter is continually decreasing to enable higher densities.

Currently, carbon-based overcoats (COCs) – layers used to protect platters from mechanical damages and corrosion – occupy a significant part of this spacing. The data density of HDDs has quadrupled since 1990, and the COC thickness has reduced from 12.5nm to around 3nm, which corresponds to one terabyte per square inch.  Now, graphene has enabled researchers to multiply this by ten.

The Cambridge researchers have replaced commercial COCs with one to four layers of graphene, and tested friction, wear, corrosion, thermal stability, and lubricant compatibility. Beyond its unbeatable thinness, graphene fulfills all the ideal properties of an HDD overcoat in terms of corrosion protection, low friction, wear resistance, hardness, lubricant compatibility, and surface smoothness.

Graphene enables two-fold reduction in friction and provides better corrosion and wear than state-of-the-art solutions. In fact, one single graphene layer reduces corrosion by 2.5 times.

Cambridge scientists transferred graphene onto hard disks made of iron-platinum as the magnetic recording layer, and tested Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) – a new technology that enables an increase in storage density by heating the recording layer to high temperatures. Current COCs do not perform at these high temperatures, but graphene does. Thus, graphene, coupled with HAMR, can outperform current HDDs, providing an unprecedented data density, higher than 10 terabytes per square inch.

“Demonstrating that graphene can serve as protective coating for conventional hard disk drives and that it is able to withstand HAMR conditions is a very important result. This will further push the development of novel high areal density hard disk drives,” said Dr Anna Ott from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, one of the co-authors of this study.

A jump in HDDs’ data density by a factor of ten and a significant reduction in wear rate are critical to achieving more sustainable and durable magnetic data recording. Graphene based technological developments are progressing along the right track towards a more sustainable world.

Professor Andrea C. Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre, added: “This work showcases the excellent mechanical, corrosion and wear resistance properties of graphene for ultra-high storage density magnetic media. Considering that in 2020, around 1 billion terabytes of fresh HDD storage was produced, these results indicate a route for mass application of graphene in cutting-edge technologies.” 

Reference
Dwivedi et al. Graphene Overcoats for Ultra-High Storage Density Magnetic Media. Nature Communications 12, 2854 (2021), DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-22687-y.

Adapted from a release from the Cambridge Graphene Centre.

Graphene can be used for ultra-high density hard disk drives (HDD), with up to a tenfold jump compared to current technologies, researchers at the Cambridge Graphene Centre have shown.

Considering that in 2020, around 1 billion terabytes of fresh HDD storage was produced, these results indicate a route for mass application of graphene in cutting-edge technologiesAndrea FerraribohedHard disk drive


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YesLicense type: Public Domain

One in twenty workers are in ‘useless’ jobs – far fewer than previously thought

Thu, 03/06/2021 - 10:31

Even so, writing in Work, Employment and Society, the academics applaud its proponent, American anthropologist David Graeber, who died in September 2020, for highlighting the link between a sense of purpose in one’s job and psychological wellbeing.

Graeber initially put forward the concept of ‘bullshit jobs’ – jobs that even those who do them view as worthless – in his 2013 essay The Democracy Project. He further expanded this theory in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, looking at possible reasons for the existence of such jobs.

Jobs that Graeber described as bullshit (BS) jobs range from doormen and receptionists to lobbyists and public relations specialists through to those in the legal profession, particularly corporate lawyers and legal consultants.

Dr Magdalena Soffia from the University of Cambridge and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, one of the authors of the article, said: “There’s something appealing about the bullshit jobs theory. The fact that many people have worked in such jobs at some point may explain why Graeber’s work resonates with so many people who can relate to the accounts he gives. But his theory is not based on any reliable empirical data, even though he puts forward several propositions, all of which are testable.”

To test Graeber’s propositions, the researchers turned to the 2005–2015 European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS), examining reasons that led to respondents answering ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ to the statement: ‘I have the feeling of doing useful work’. The surveys – taken in 2005, 2010 and 2015 – gather measures on the usefulness of the job, workers’ wellbeing and objective data on the quality of work. The number of respondents grew from over 21,000 in 2005 to almost 30,000 in 2015.

According to Graeber, somewhere between 20% and 50% of the workforce – possibly as many as 60% - are employed in BS jobs. Yet the EWCS found that just 4.8% of EU workers said they did not feel they were doing useful work. The figure was slightly higher in the UK and Ireland, but still only 5.6% of workers.

Graeber also claimed that the number of BS jobs has been ‘increasing rapidly in recent years’, despite presenting no empirical evidence. Again the researchers found no evidence to support this conjecture – in fact, the percentage of people in BS jobs fell from 7.8% in 2005 to just 4.8% in 2015 – exactly the opposite of Graeber’s prediction.

His next hypothesis was that BS jobs are concentrated in particular professions, such as finance, law, administration and marketing, and largely absent in others, such as those linked to public services and manual labour. “Many service workers hate their jobs; but even those who do are aware that what they do does make some sort of meaningful difference in the world . . . [Whereas] we can only assume that any office worker who one might suspect secretly believes themselves to have a bullshit job does, indeed, believe this,” he wrote.

When the researchers ranked the occupations by the proportion of people who rated their job as rarely or never useful, they found no evidence for the existence of occupations in which the majority of workers feel their work is not useful.

The authors found that workers in some occupations, such as teachers and nurses, generally see themselves as doing useful jobs, while sales workers are above average in the proportion rating their job as not useful (7.7%). Even so, most of the results contradict Graeber’s assertion. For example, legal professionals and administration professionals are all low on this ranking, and jobs that Graeber rates as being examples of essential non-BS jobs, such as refuse collectors (9.7%) and cleaners and helpers (8.1%), are high on this scale.

Not everything that Graeber suggested was wrong, however. He argued, for example, that BS jobs are a form of ‘spiritual violence’ that lead to anxiety, depression and misery among workers. The team found strong evidence between the perception of one’s job as useless and an individual’s psychological wellbeing, albeit a correlation rather than necessarily a causal link. In the UK in 2015, workers who felt their job was not useful scored significantly lower on the World Health Organisation Well-Being Index than those who felt they were doing useful work (a mean average of 49.3 compared with 64.5). There was a similar gap across other EU nations.

Dr Alex Wood from the University of Birmingham said: “When we looked at readily-available data from a large cohort of people across Europe, it quickly became apparent to us that very few of the key propositions in Graeber’s theory can be sustained – and this is the case in every country we looked at, to varying degrees. But one of his most important propositions – that BS jobs are a form of ‘spiritual violence’ – does seem to be supported by the data.”

Given that, in absolute terms, a substantial number of people do not view their jobs as useful, what then leads to this feeling? The team found that those individuals who felt respected and encouraged by management were less likely to report their work as useless. Conversely, when employees experience management that is disrespectful, inefficient or poor at giving feedback, they were less likely to perceive their work as useful.

Similarly, individuals who saw their job as useful tended to be able to use their own ideas at work – an important element for feeling that your job provides you with the ability to make the most of your skills – was correlated with a perception of usefulness. There was a clear relationship between the extent to which people felt that they had enough time to do their job well and their rating of the usefulness of their job, suggesting that one source of feeling a job to be useless is the pace at which one is working, affecting the ability to realise one’s potential and capabilities. Other factors correlated with feeling that a job was worthwhile included support by managers and colleagues and the ability to influence important decisions and the direction of an organization.

Professor Brendan Burchell from the University of Cambridge said: “Although the data doesn’t always support David Graeber’s claims, his insightful and imaginative work played an important role in raising awareness of the harms of useless jobs. He may have been way off the mark with regards how common BS jobs are, but he was right to link people’s attitudes towards their jobs to their psychological wellbeing, and this is something that employers – and society as a whole – should take seriously.

“Most importantly, employees need to be respected and valued if they in turn are to value – and benefit psychologically as well as financially from – their jobs.”

Reference
Soffia, M, Wood, AJ and Burchell, B. Alienation Is Not ‘Bullshit’: An Empirical Critique of Graeber’s Theory of BS Jobs. WES; 3 June 2021; DOI: 10.1177/09500170211015067

The so-called ‘bullshit jobs theory’ – which argues that a large and rapidly increasing number of workers are undertaking jobs that they themselves recognise as being useless and of no social value – contains several major flaws, argue researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Birmingham.

Although the data doesn’t always support David Graeber’s claims, his insightful and imaginative work played an important role in raising awareness of the harms of useless jobsBrendan BurchellBermix StudioMan working at a laptop


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Statement following the Fishmongers' Hall inquest

Fri, 28/05/2021 - 12:38

As we reflect in the weeks ahead on lessons to be learned from the inquest, we are grateful to the many witnesses who testified to the value of Learning Together in helping many of those who take part to make positive progress in their lives.

Statement from Learning Together Co-founders and directors Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow

"Our thoughts today are especially with the families and friends of Jack and Saskia and with everyone else who was injured or with us that day at Fishmongers Hall. We acknowledge the outstanding bravery of many in the Learning Together community, Fishmongers’ Company staff, members of the general public and our emergency services who risked their lives to save and help others. We are heartbroken by the loss of our beloved colleague Jack and student Saskia. We are grateful to everyone who spoke of Learning Together’s positive impact and are determined to reflect on the lessons of these inquests as we move forwards."

Today the thoughts of the Cambridge community are with the families of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, and with others whose lives were irrevocably changed by the terrible events at Fishmongers’ Hall.


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No

Extra classroom time may do little to help pupils recover lost learning after COVID-19

Fri, 28/05/2021 - 10:39

The University of Cambridge analysis used five years of Government data, collected from more than 2,800 schools in England, to estimate the likely impact of additional classroom instruction on academic progress, as measured at GCSE.

It found that even substantial increases in classroom teaching time would likely only lead to small improvements. For example, extending Year 11 pupils’ classroom time by one hour per class, in English or maths, was associated with an increase of 0.12 and 0.18 in a school’s ‘value-added’ score – a standard progress measure. This increase appears small, considering that most of the schools in the study had scores ranging between 994 and 1006.

The research also investigated the likely impact for disadvantaged pupils, whose education has been hardest hit by school closures. In keeping with the overall results, it again found that more of the same teaching was likely to do relatively little to improve academic outcomes.

The study was undertaken by Vaughan Connolly, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. His paper reporting the findings, published in the London Review of Education, suggests that long-term plans to recoup lost learning may be better off focusing on maximising the value of the existing school day, rather than extending it.

“Simply keeping all students in school for longer, in order to do more maths or more English, probably won’t improve results much; nor is it likely to narrow the attainment gap for those who have missed out the most,” Connolly said.

“This evidence suggests that re-evaluating how time is used in schools – for example, by trimming subject time and replacing it with sessions focusing on ‘learning to learn’ skills – could make a bigger difference. Quality is going to matter much more than quantity in the long run.”

One possible reason why additional instruction time may be relatively ineffective is diminishing returns – namely, that more contact hours simply increase the burden on both teachers and pupils, preventing them from being at their best.

Potentially extending the school day has been widely discussed as one possible component of a forthcoming Government recovery plan for education. While there is international evidence suggesting that additional teaching time only leads to small returns, there had been no large-scale study of this issue in the English school system until now.

The Cambridge study used timetable data gathered from 2,815 schools through the School Workforce Census over five years. It tracked the relationship between changes to the amount of instruction time that pupils received in English, maths, science and humanities subjects, and their academic progress.

‘Progress’ was identified using schools’ value-added scores. The Government gathers these when pupils sit GCSEs at age 16, by comparing their actual results with predictions made after their primary school SATs at age 11.

While the impact of additional classroom tuition on progress varied between subjects and groups, the effects were generally small. For example: one additional hour of instruction for a Year 11 class in English, science, maths, or the humanities, led to an increase in value-added scores of 0.12, 0.09, 0.18 and 0.43 respectively. ‘At a practical level, this seems small, particularly when considering the cost of such time,’ the study notes.

To examine the potential impact of extra classroom time on less-advantaged students, the study also assessed how far it closed the gap between the value-added scores of students on free school meals, and those of students with middle-ranking prior attainment. The results were again found to be modest. For example, an extra 59 minutes per week in English reduced the attainment gap between these groups by about 6.5%; and an extra 57 minutes per week of maths by about 8%.

The findings compare with those of the Education Endowment Foundation’s influential Teaching and Learning toolkit, which summarises international evidence on different teaching interventions and translates their effect sizes into months of progress. It suggests that increased instruction time is likely to lead to two months of progress over an academic year. This compares poorly with the results of other interventions listed in the same document.

In this context, the Cambridge study suggests that methods which focus on increasing the quality of learning in the classroom, rather than the amount of time spent there, may prove more fruitful. It echoes recommendations recently made by the Education Policy Institute which called for ambitious levels of investment in a wider-ranging programme of catch-up measures. The new study suggests that time could be reallocated during the school day, either to support the continuing professional development of staff, or to provide pupils with additional skills.

It also points to research conducted in 2016 in which Key Stage 3 pupils’ test scores improved dramatically after a portion of their regular curriculum was replaced with training in metacognition – the ability to understand how to learn and reason through problems. Other studies, such as a project examining learning recovery after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, have similarly suggested that supporting schools to better match their curriculum to student needs may have greater effect than extra classroom time.

“Rather than extending the school day to offer more instruction, a successful recovery agenda may well be one that tailors support and makes room for a wider range of learning within it, in line with the recent suggestions made by the EPI,” Connolly said. “In that sense, less instructional time could actually be more. Certainly, these results suggest that giving children more of the same is unlikely to help if we want to recover what has been lost during the pandemic.”

Adding extra classroom time to the school day may only result in marginal gains for pupils who have lost learning during the COVID pandemic, a study says.

Simply keeping all students in school for longer, in order to do more maths or more English, probably won’t improve results muchVaughan ConnollyJeswin Thomas via UnsplashSchool


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YesLicense type: Attribution

Award winning author and former MPhil in African Studies student Mary Ononokpono talks about how her work has been inspired by our MPhil programme

 

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