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Training AI models to answer ‘what if?’ questions could improve medical treatments

Fri, 19/04/2024 - 09:02

Artificial intelligence techniques can be helpful for multiple medical applications, such as radiology or oncology, where the ability to recognise patterns in large volumes of data is vital. For these types of applications, the AI compares information against learned examples, draws conclusions, and makes extrapolations.

Now, an international team led by researchers from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) and including researchers from the University of Cambridge, is exploring the potential of a comparatively new branch of AI for diagnostics and therapy.

The researchers found that causal machine learning (ML) can estimate treatment outcomes – and do so better than the machine learning methods generally used to date. Causal machine learning makes it easier for clinicians to personalise treatment strategies, which individually improves the health of patients.

The results, reported in the journal Nature Medicine, suggest how causal machine learning could improve the effectiveness and safety of a variety of medical treatments.

Classical machine learning recognises patterns and discovers correlations. However, the principle of cause and effect remains closed to machines as a rule; they cannot address the question of why. When making therapy decisions for a patient, the ‘why’ is vital to achieve the best outcomes.

“Developing machine learning tools to address why and what if questions is empowering for clinicians, because it can strengthen their decision-making processes,” said senior author Professor Michaela van der Schaar, Director of the Cambridge Centre for AI in Medicine. “But this sort of machine learning is far more complex than assessing personalised risk.”

For example, when attempting to determine therapy decisions for someone at risk of developing diabetes, classical ML would aim to predict how probable it is for a given patient with a range of risk factors to develop the disease. With causal ML, it would be possible to answer how the risk changes if the patient receives an anti-diabetes drug; that is, gauge the effect of a cause. It would also be possible to estimate whether metformin, the commonly-prescribed medication, would be the best treatment, or whether another treatment plan would be better.

To be able to estimate the effect of a hypothetical treatment, the AI models must learn to answer ‘what if?’ questions. “We give the machine rules for recognising the causal structure and correctly formalising the problem,” said Professor Stefan Feuerriegel from LMU, who led the research. “Then the machine has to learn to recognise the effects of interventions and understand, so to speak, how real-life consequences are mirrored in the data that has been fed into the computers.”

Even in situations for which reliable treatment standards do not yet exist or where randomised studies are not possible for ethical reasons because they always contain a placebo group, machines could still gauge potential treatment outcomes from the available patient data and form hypotheses for possible treatment plans, so the researchers hope.

With such real-world data, it should generally be possible to describe the patient cohorts with ever greater precision in the estimates, bringing individualised therapy decisions that much closer. Naturally, there would still be the challenge of ensuring the reliability and robustness of the methods.

“The software we need for causal ML methods in medicine doesn’t exist out of the box,” says Feuerriegel. “Rather, complex modelling of the respective problem is required, involving close collaboration between AI experts and doctors.”

In other fields, such as marketing, explains Feuerriegel, the work with causal ML has already been in the testing phase for some years now. “Our goal is to bring the methods a step closer to practice,” he said. The paper describes the direction in which things could move over the coming years.”

“I have worked in this area for almost 10 years, working relentlessly in our lab with generations of students to crack this problem,” said van der Schaar, who is affiliated with the Departments of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Engineering and Medicine. “It’s an extremely challenging area of machine learning, and seeing it come closer to clinical use, where it will empower clinicians and patients alike, is very satisfying.”

Van der Schaar is continuing to work closely with clinicians to validate these tools in diverse clinical settings, including transplantation, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Reference:
Stefan Feuerriegel et al. ‘Causal machine learning for predicting treatments.’ Nature Medicine (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41591-024-02902-1

Adapted from an LMU media release.

Machines can learn not only to make predictions, but to handle causal relationships. An international research team shows how this could make medical treatments safer, more efficient, and more personalised.

Yuichiro Chino via Getty ImagesComputer-generated image of human brain


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Yes

Mess is best: disordered structure of battery-like devices improves performance

Thu, 18/04/2024 - 19:00

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge used experimental and computer modelling techniques to study the porous carbon electrodes used in supercapacitors. They found that electrodes with a more disordered chemical structure stored far more energy than electrodes with a highly ordered structure.

Supercapacitors are a key technology for the energy transition and could be useful for certain forms of public transport, as well as for managing intermittent solar and wind energy generation, but their adoption has been limited by poor energy density.

The researchers say their results, reported in the journal Science, represent a breakthrough in the field and could reinvigorate the development of this important net-zero technology.

Like batteries, supercapacitors store energy, but supercapacitors can charge in seconds or a few minutes, while batteries take much longer. Supercapacitors are far more durable than batteries, and can last for millions of charge cycles. However, the low energy density of supercapacitors makes them unsuitable for delivering long-term energy storage or continuous power.

“Supercapacitors are a complementary technology to batteries, rather than a replacement,” said Dr Alex Forse from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, who led the research. “Their durability and extremely fast charging capabilities make them useful for a wide range of applications.”

A bus, train or metro powered by supercapacitors, for example, could fully charge in the time it takes to let passengers off and on, providing it with enough power to reach the next stop. This would eliminate the need to install any charging infrastructure along the line. However, before supercapacitors are put into widespread use, their energy storage capacity needs to be improved.

While a battery uses chemical reactions to store and release charge, a supercapacitor relies on the movement of charged molecules between porous carbon electrodes, which have a highly disordered structure. “Think of a sheet of graphene, which has a highly ordered chemical structure,” said Forse. “If you scrunch up that sheet of graphene into a ball, you have a disordered mess, which is sort of like the electrode in a supercapacitor.”

Because of the inherent messiness of the electrodes, it’s been difficult for scientists to study them and determine which parameters are the most important when attempting to improve performance. This lack of clear consensus has led to the field getting a bit stuck.

Many scientists have thought that the size of the tiny holes, or nanopores, in the carbon electrodes was the key to improved energy capacity. However, the Cambridge team analysed a series of commercially available nanoporous carbon electrodes and found there was no link between pore size and storage capacity.

Forse and his colleagues took a new approach and used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy – a sort of ‘MRI’ for batteries – to study the electrode materials. They found that the messiness of the materials – long thought to be a hindrance – was the key to their success.

“Using NMR spectroscopy, we found that energy storage capacity correlates with how disordered the materials are – the more disordered materials can store more energy,” said first author Xinyu Liu, a PhD candidate co-supervised by Forse and Professor Dame Clare Grey. “Messiness is hard to measure – it’s only possible thanks to new NMR and simulation techniques, which is why messiness is a characteristic that’s been overlooked in this field.”

When analysing the electrode materials with NMR spectroscopy, a spectrum with different peaks and valleys is produced. The position of the peak indicates how ordered or disordered the carbon is. “It wasn’t our plan to look for this, it was a big surprise,” said Forse. “When we plotted the position of the peak against energy capacity, a striking correlation came through – the most disordered materials had a capacity almost double that of the most ordered materials.”

So why is mess good? Forse says that’s the next thing the team is working on. More disordered carbons store ions more efficiently in their nanopores, and the team hope to use these results to design better supercapacitors. The messiness of the materials is determined at the point they are synthesised.

“We want to look at new ways of making these materials, to see how far messiness can take you in terms of improving energy storage,” said Forse. “It could be a turning point for a field that’s been stuck for a little while. Clare and I started working on this topic over a decade ago, and it’s exciting to see a lot of our previous fundamental work now having a clear application.”

The research was supported in part by the Cambridge Trusts, the European Research Council, and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Reference:
Xinyu Liu et al. ‘Structural disorder determines capacitance in nanoporous carbons.’ Science (2024). DOI: 10.1126/science.adn6242

For more information on energy-related research in Cambridge, please visit the Energy IRC, which brings together Cambridge’s research knowledge and expertise, in collaboration with global partners, to create solutions for a sustainable and resilient energy landscape for generations to come. 

The energy density of supercapacitors – battery-like devices that can charge in seconds or a few minutes – can be improved by increasing the ‘messiness’ of their internal structure.

This could be a turning point for a field that’s been stuck for a little while. Alex ForseNathan PittLeft to right: Clare Grey, Xinyu Liu, Alex Forse


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Yes

Steven Barrett appointed Regius Professor of Engineering

Wed, 17/04/2024 - 19:48

Professor Steven Barrett has been appointed Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, effective 1 June. He joins the University from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro).

Barrett’s appointment marks his return to Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate at Pembroke College, and received his PhD. He was a Lecturer in the Department of Engineering from 2008 until 2010, when he joined the faculty at MIT.

The Regius Professorships are royal academic titles created by the monarch. The Regius Professorship in Engineering was announced in 2011, in honour of HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh’s 35 years as Chancellor of the University.

“It’s a pleasure to welcome Steven back to Cambridge to take up one of the University’s most prestigious roles,” said Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice. “His work on sustainable aviation will build on Cambridge’s existing strengths, and will help us develop the solutions we need to address the threat posed by climate change.”

Barrett’s research focuses on the impact aviation has on the environment. He has developed a number of solutions to mitigate the impact aviation has on air quality, climate, and noise pollution. The overall goal of his research is to help develop technologies that eliminate the environmental impact of aviation. His work on the first-ever plane with no moving propulsion parts was named one of the 10 Breakthroughs of 2018 by Physics World.

“This is an exciting time to work on sustainable aviation, and Cambridge, as well as the UK more generally, is a wonderful platform to advance that,” said Barrett. “Cambridge’s multidisciplinary Department of Engineering, as well as the platform that the Regius Professorship provides, makes this a great opportunity. I’ve learned a lot at MIT, but I’d always hoped to come back to Cambridge at some point.”

Much of Barrett’s research focuses on the elimination of contrails, line-shaped clouds produced by aircraft engine exhaust in cold and humid conditions. Contrails cause half of all aviation-related global warming – more than the entirety of the UK economy. Barrett uses a combination of satellite observation and machine learning techniques to help determine whether avoiding certain regions of airspace could reduce or eliminate contrail formation.

“It will take several years to make this work, but if it does, it could drastically reduce emissions at a very low cost to the consumer,” said Barrett. “We could make the UK the first ‘Blue Skies’ country in the world – the first without any contrails in the sky.”

“Steven’s pioneering work on contrail formation and avoidance is a key element in reducing the environmental impact of aviation, and will strengthen the UK’s position as a world leader in this area,” said Professor Colm Durkan, Head of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. “Together with Steven’s work on alternative aviation propulsion systems, this will strengthen Cambridge’s vision of helping us all achieve net zero at an accelerated rate.”

In addition to the Professorship in Engineering, there are seven other Regius Professorships at Cambridge: Divinity, Hebrew, Greek, Civil Law and Physic (all founded by Henry VIII in 1540), History (founded by George I in 1724) and Botany (founded in 2009, to mark the University’s 800th anniversary).

An expert on the environmental impacts of aviation, Barrett joins the University of Cambridge from MIT.

MITSteven Barrett


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Yes

Artificial Intelligence beats doctors in accurately assessing eye problems

Wed, 17/04/2024 - 19:00

The clinical knowledge and reasoning skills of GPT-4 are approaching the level of specialist eye doctors, a study led by the University of Cambridge has found.

GPT-4 - a ‘large language model’ - was tested against doctors at different stages in their careers, including unspecialised junior doctors, and trainee and expert eye doctors. Each was presented with a series of 87 patient scenarios involving a specific eye problem, and asked to give a diagnosis or advise on treatment by selecting from four options.

GPT-4 scored significantly better in the test than unspecialised junior doctors, who are comparable to general practitioners in their level of specialist eye knowledge.

GPT-4 gained similar scores to trainee and expert eye doctors - although the top performing doctors scored higher.

The researchers say that large language models aren’t likely to replace healthcare professionals, but have the potential to improve healthcare as part of the clinical workflow.

They say state-of-the-art large language models like GPT-4 could be useful for providing eye-related advice, diagnosis, and management suggestions in well-controlled contexts, like triaging patients, or where access to specialist healthcare professionals is limited.

“We could realistically deploy AI in triaging patients with eye issues to decide which cases are emergencies that need to be seen by a specialist immediately, which can be seen by a GP, and which don’t need treatment,” said Dr Arun Thirunavukarasu, lead author of the study, which he carried out while a student at the University of Cambridge’s School of Clinical Medicine.

He added: “The models could follow clear algorithms already in use, and we’ve found that GPT-4 is as good as expert clinicians at processing eye symptoms and signs to answer more complicated questions.

“With further development, large language models could also advise GPs who are struggling to get prompt advice from eye doctors. People in the UK are waiting longer than ever for eye care.

Large volumes of clinical text are needed to help fine-tune and develop these models, and work is ongoing around the world to facilitate this.

The researchers say that their study is superior to similar, previous studies because they compared the abilities of AI to practicing doctors, rather than to sets of examination results.

“Doctors aren't revising for exams for their whole career. We wanted to see how AI fared when pitted against to the on-the-spot knowledge and abilities of practicing doctors, to provide a fair comparison,” said Thirunavukarasu, who is now an Academic Foundation Doctor at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

He added: “We also need to characterise the capabilities and limitations of commercially available models, as patients may already be using them - rather than the internet - for advice.”

The test included questions about a huge range of eye problems, including extreme light sensitivity, decreased vision, lesions, itchy and painful eyes, taken from a textbook used to test trainee eye doctors. This textbook is not freely available on the internet, making it unlikely that its content was included in GPT-4’s training datasets.

The results are published today in the journal PLOS Digital Health.

“Even taking the future use of AI into account, I think doctors will continue to be in charge of patient care. The most important thing is to empower patients to decide whether they want computer systems to be involved or not. That will be an individual decision for each patient to make,” said Thirunavukarasu.

GPT-4 and GPT-3.5 – or ‘Generative Pre-trained Transformers’ - are trained on datasets containing hundreds of billions of words from articles, books, and other internet sources. These are two examples of large language models; others in wide use include Pathways Language Model 2 (PaLM 2) and Large Language Model Meta AI 2 (LLaMA 2).

The study also tested GPT-3.5, PaLM2, and LLaMA with the same set of questions. GPT-4 gave more accurate responses than all of them.

GPT-4 powers the online chatbot ChatGPT to provide bespoke responses to human queries. In recent months, ChatGPT has attracted significant attention in medicine for attaining passing level performance in medical school examinations, and providing more accurate and empathetic messages than human doctors in response to patient queries.

The field of artificially intelligent large language models is moving very rapidly. Since the study was conducted, more advanced models have been released - which may be even closer to the level of expert eye doctors.

Reference: Thirunavukarasu, A.J. et al: ‘Large language models approach expert-level clinical knowledge and reasoning in ophthalmology: A head-to-head cross-sectional study.’ PLOS Digital Health, April 2024. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pdig.0000341

A study has found that the AI model GPT-4 significantly exceeds the ability of non-specialist doctors to assess eye problems and provide advice.

We could realistically deploy AI in triaging patients with eye issues to decide which cases are emergencies.Arun ThirunavukarasuMavocado on Getty


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YesLicence type: Attribution-Noncommerical

AI speeds up drug design for Parkinson’s ten-fold

Wed, 17/04/2024 - 10:00

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, designed and used an AI-based strategy to identify compounds that block the clumping, or aggregation, of alpha-synuclein, the protein that characterises Parkinson’s.

The team used machine learning techniques to quickly screen a chemical library containing millions of entries, and identified five highly potent compounds for further investigation.

Parkinson’s affects more than six million people worldwide, with that number projected to triple by 2040. No disease-modifying treatments for the condition are currently available. The process of screening large chemical libraries for drug candidates – which needs to happen well before potential treatments can be tested on patients – is enormously time-consuming and expensive, and often unsuccessful.

Using machine learning, the researchers were able to speed up the initial screening process ten-fold, and reduce the cost by a thousand-fold, which could mean that potential treatments for Parkinson’s reach patients much faster. The results are reported in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Parkinson’s is the fastest-growing neurological condition worldwide. In the UK, one in 37 people alive today will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s in their lifetime. In addition to motor symptoms, Parkinson’s can also affect the gastrointestinal system, nervous system, sleeping patterns, mood and cognition, and can contribute to a reduced quality of life and significant disability.

Proteins are responsible for important cell processes, but when people have Parkinson’s, these proteins go rogue and cause the death of nerve cells. When proteins misfold, they can form abnormal clusters called Lewy bodies, which build up within brain cells stopping them from functioning properly.

“One route to search for potential treatments for Parkinson’s requires the identification of small molecules that can inhibit the aggregation of alpha-synuclein, which is a protein closely associated with the disease,” said Professor Michele Vendruscolo from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, who led the research. “But this is an extremely time-consuming process – just identifying a lead candidate for further testing can take months or even years.”

While there are currently clinical trials for Parkinson’s currently underway, no disease-modifying drug has been approved, reflecting the inability to directly target the molecular species that cause the disease.

This has been a major obstacle in Parkinson’s research, because of the lack of methods to identify the correct molecular targets and engage with them. This technological gap has severely hampered the development of effective treatments.

The Cambridge team developed a machine learning method in which chemical libraries containing millions of compounds are screened to identify small molecules that bind to the amyloid aggregates and block their proliferation.

A small number of top-ranking compounds were then tested experimentally to select the most potent inhibitors of aggregation. The information gained from these experimental assays was fed back into the machine learning model in an iterative manner, so that after a few iterations, highly potent compounds were identified.

“Instead of screening experimentally, we screen computationally,” said Vendruscolo, who is co-Director of the Centre for Misfolding Diseases. “By using the knowledge we gained from the initial screening with our machine learning model, we were able to train the model to identify the specific regions on these small molecules responsible for binding, then we can re-screen and find more potent molecules.”

Using this method, the Cambridge team developed compounds to target pockets on the surfaces of the aggregates, which are responsible for the exponential proliferation of the aggregates themselves. These compounds are hundreds of times more potent, and far cheaper to develop, than previously reported ones.

“Machine learning is having a real impact on drug discovery – it’s speeding up the whole process of identifying the most promising candidates,” said Vendruscolo. “For us, this means we can start work on multiple drug discovery programmes – instead of just one. So much is possible due to the massive reduction in both time and cost – it’s an exciting time.”

The research was conducted in the Chemistry of Health Laboratory in Cambridge, which was established with the support of the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF) to promote the translation of academic research into clinical programmes.

 

Reference:
Robert I. Horne et al. ‘Discovery of Potent Inhibitors of α-Synuclein Aggregation Using Structure-Based Iterative Learning.’ Nature Chemical Biology (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41589-024-01580-x

Researchers have used artificial intelligence techniques to massively accelerate the search for Parkinson’s disease treatments.

Machine learning is having a real impact on drug discovery – it’s speeding up the whole process of identifying the most promising candidatesMichele Vendruscolo Nathan PittMichele Vendruscolo


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Interspecies competition led to even more forms of ancient human – defying evolutionary trends in vertebrates

Wed, 17/04/2024 - 09:06

Climate has long been held responsible for the emergence and extinction of hominin species. In most vertebrates, however, interspecies competition is known to play an important role.

Now, research shows for the first time that competition was fundamental to “speciation” – the rate at which new species emerge – across five million years of hominin evolution.

The study, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, also suggests that the species formation pattern of our own lineage was closer to island-dwelling beetles than other mammals.  

“We have been ignoring the way competition between species has shaped our own evolutionary tree,” said lead author Dr Laura van Holstein, a University of Cambridge biological anthropologist at Clare College. “The effect of climate on hominin species is only part of the story.” 

In other vertebrates, species form to fill ecological “niches” says van Holstein. Take Darwin’s finches: some evolved large beaks for nut-cracking, while others evolved small beaks for feeding on certain insects. When each resource niche gets filled, competition kicks in, so no new finches emerge and extinctions take over.

Van Holstein used Bayesian modelling and phylogenetic analyses to show that, like other vertebrates, most hominin species formed when competition for resources or space were low.

“The pattern we see across many early hominins is similar to all other mammals. Speciation rates increase and then flatline, at which point extinction rates start to increase. This suggests that interspecies competition was a major evolutionary factor.”

However, when van Holstein analysed our own group, Homo, the findings were “bizarre”.

For the Homo lineage that led to modern humans, evolutionary patterns suggest that competition between species actually resulted in the appearance of even more new species – a complete reversal of the trend seen in almost all other vertebrates.

“The more species of Homo there were, the higher the rate of speciation. So when those niches got filled, something drove even more species to emerge. This is almost unparalleled in evolutionary science.”

The closest comparison she could find was in beetle species that live on islands, where contained ecosystems can produce unusual evolutionary trends.

“The patterns of evolution we see across species of Homo that led directly to modern humans is closer to those of island-dwelling beetles than other primates, or even any other mammal.”

Recent decades have seen the discovery of several new hominin species, from Australopithecus sediba to Homo floresiensis. Van Holstein created a new database of “occurrences” in the hominin fossil record: each time an example of a species was found and dated, around 385 in total.

Fossils can be an unreliable measure of species’ lifetimes. “The earliest fossil we find will not be the earliest members of a species,” said van Holstein.

“How well an organism fossilises depends on geology, and on climatic conditions: whether it is hot or dry or damp. With research efforts concentrated in certain parts of the world, and we might well have missed younger or older fossils of a species as a result.”

Van Holstein used data modelling to address this problem, and factor in likely numbers of each species at the beginning and end of their existence, as well as environmental factors on fossilisation, to generate new start and end dates for most known hominin species (17 in total).

She found that some species thought to have evolved through “anagenesis” – when one slowly turns into another, but lineage doesn’t split – may have actually “budded”: when a new species branches off from an existing one.*

This meant that several more hominin species than previously assumed were co-existing, and so possibly competing.

While early species of hominins, such as Paranthropus, probably evolved physiologically to expand their niche – adapting teeth to exploit new types of food, for example – the driver of the very different pattern in our own genus Homo may well have been technology.

“Adoption of stone tools or fire, or intensive hunting techniques, are extremely flexible behaviours. A species that can harness them can quickly carve out new niches, and doesn’t have to survive vast tracts of time while evolving new body plans,” said van Holstein

She argues that an ability to use technology to generalise, and rapidly go beyond ecological niches that force other species to compete for habitat and resources, may be behind the exponential increase in the number of Homo species detected by the latest study.

But it also led to Homo sapiens – the ultimate generalisers. And competition with an extremely flexible generalist in almost every ecological niche may be what contributed to the extinction of all other Homo species.

Added van Holstein: “These results show that, although it has been conventionally ignored, competition played an important role in human evolution overall. Perhaps most interestingly, in our own genus it played a role unlike that across any other vertebrate lineage known so far.”

Competition between species played a major role in the rise and fall of hominins, and produced a “bizarre” evolutionary pattern for the Homo lineage.

This is almost unparalleled in evolutionary scienceLaura van HolsteinThe Duckworth LaboratoryA cast of the skull of Homo Heidelbergensis, one of the hominin species analysed in the latest study.


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Yes

Is Democracy Dying?

Mon, 15/04/2024 - 12:22

2024 is the year of elections. A record number of elections will take place, with half the adult population of the world, some two billion people, having the chance to vote. Is this a milestone to be celebrated in our democratic history or are we at a crossroads where the fate of liberal democracy hangs in the balance?

Against a backdrop of polarising populist movements, the erosion of trust in traditional institutions and a decline of democratic norms, we ask: is democracy dying? Is the election of populists an expression of democracy or a breakdown of democracy? How resilient are our democratic institutions in the face of unprecedented challenges? Is the tension between liberal and democracy ultimately too great to resolve?

Join us on 24 April to grapple with these questions in our second Vice-Chancellor’s Dialogues, hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice.

Our speakers
  • David Goodhart, founding editor of Prospect magazine and Head of the Demography, Immigration and Integration unit at the think tank Policy Exchange. He is the author of The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics.
  • Nabila Ramdani, award-winning journalist, broadcaster and academic. She is the author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic.
  • Helen Thompson, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge. She is a regular panellist on Talking Politics and a columnist for the New Statesman.

The discussion will be chaired by Roger Mosey, Master of Selwyn College and former Editorial Director of the BBC. The event is public and open to all, but attendees must register on Eventbrite.

Register to attend  

If you're not able to attend, we'll publish a recording of the event in the coming weeks.

The second Vice-Chancellor’s Dialogues event grapples with the question: 'is liberal democracy dying?' The evening will be hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice and chaired by the Master of Selwyn College.


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Study unpicks why childhood maltreatment continues to impact on mental and physical health into adulthood

Thu, 11/04/2024 - 15:31

Individuals who experienced maltreatment in childhood – such as emotional, physical and sexual abuse, or emotional and physical neglect – are more likely to develop mental illness throughout their entire life, but it is not yet well understood why this risk persists many decades after maltreatment first took place.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the University of Cambridge and Leiden University found that adult brains continue to be affected by childhood maltreatment in adulthood because these experiences make individuals more likely to experience obesity, inflammation and traumatic events, all of which are risk factors for poor health and wellbeing, which in turn also affect brain structure and therefore brain health.

The researchers examined MRI brain scans from approximately 21,000 adult participants aged 40 to 70 years in UK Biobank, as well as information on body mass index (an indicator of metabolic health), CRP (a blood marker of inflammation) and experiences of childhood maltreatment and adult trauma.

Sofia Orellana, a PhD student at the Department of Psychiatry and Darwin College, University of Cambridge, said: “We’ve known for some time that people who experience abuse or neglect as a child can continue to experience mental health problems long into adulthood and that their experiences can also cause long term problems for the brain, the immune system and the metabolic system, which ultimately controls the health of your heart or your propensity to diabetes for instance. What hasn’t been clear is how all these effects interact or reinforce each other.”

Using a type of statistical modelling that allowed them to determine how these interactions work, the researchers confirmed that experiencing childhood maltreatment made individuals more likely to have an increased body mass index (or obesity) and experience greater rates of trauma in adulthood. Individuals with a history of maltreatment tended to show signs of dysfunction in their immune systems, and the researchers showed that this dysfunction is the product of obesity and repeated exposure to traumatic events.

Next, the researchers expanded their models to include MRI measures of the adult’s brains and were able to show that widespread increases and decreases in brain thickness and volume associated with greater body mass index, inflammation and trauma were attributable to childhood maltreatment having made these factors more likely in the first place. These changes in brain structure likely mean that some form of physical damage is occurring to brain cells, affecting how they work and function.

Although there is more to do to understand how these effects operate at a cellular level in the brain, the researchers believe that their findings advance our understanding of how adverse events in childhood can contribute to life-long increased risk of brain and mind health disorders.

Professor Ed Bullmore from the Department of Psychiatry and an Honorary Fellow at Downing College, Cambridge, said: “Now that we have a better understanding of why childhood maltreatment has long term effects, we can potentially look for biomarkers – biological red flags – that indicate whether an individual is at increased risk of continuing problems. This could help us target early on those who most need help, and hopefully aid them in breaking this chain of ill health.”

The research was supported by MQ: Transforming Mental Health, the Royal Society, Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration East of England, Girton College and Darwin College.

Reference
Orellana, SC et al. Childhood maltreatment influences adult brain structure through its effects on immune, metabolic and psychosocial factors. PNAS; 9 Apr 2024 ; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.230470412

Childhood maltreatment can continue to have an impact long into adulthood because of how it effects an individual’s risk of poor physical health and traumatic experiences many years later, a new study has found.

We’ve known for some time that people who experience abuse or neglect as a child can continue to experience mental health problems long into adulthoodSofia Orellanamali desha (Unsplash)Black and white image of boy curled up on the floor


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Four Cambridge researchers awarded prestigious European Research Council Advanced Grants

Thu, 11/04/2024 - 11:01

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced today the award of 255 Advanced Grants to outstanding research leaders across Europe, as part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. Four University of Cambridge researchers are amongst those to receive this prestigious and competitive funding.

The University of Cambridge’s grant awardees are:

Dr Albert Guillén i Fàbregas in the Department of Engineering for his project Scaling and Concentration Laws in Information Theory.

Fàbregas, who has previously received ERC Starting, Consolidator and Proof of Concept Grants, said: “I am truly delighted with the news that the ERC will continue to fund my research in information theory, which studies the mathematical aspects of data transmission and data compression.

“This project will broaden the theory to study arbitrary scaling laws of the number of messages to transmit or compress."

Professor Beverley Glover in the Department of Plant Sciences and Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, for her project Convergent evolution of floral patterning through alternative optimisation of mechanical parameter space.

Glover said: “This funding will enable us to explore how iridescent colour evolved repeatedly in different flowers. We think it will shed new light on evolution itself, as we think about the development of iridescence structure from a mechanical perspective, focusing on the forces acting as a petal grows and the mechanical properties of the petal tissue.

“It's only possible for me to do this work because of the amazing living collection at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and I'm thrilled that the ERC is keen to support it."

Professor Ian Henderson in the Department of Plant Sciences for his project Evolution of the Arabidopsis Pancentromere.

Henderson said: “This project seeks to investigate enigmatic regions of the genome called the centromeres, using the model plant Arabidopsis. These regions play a deeply conserved role in cell division yet paradoxically are fast evolving.

“I am highly honoured and excited to be awarded an ERC Advanced grant. The advent of long-read sequencing technology makes addressing these questions timely. The ERC’s long-term support will allow us to capitalise on these advances, build new collaborations, and train postdoctoral researchers.”

Professor Paul Lane in the Department of Archaeology, for his project Landscape Historical Ecology and Archaeology of Ancient Pastoral Societies in Kenya.

Lane said: “Pastoralism has been an extraordinarily resilient livelihood strategy across Africa. This project provides an excellent opportunity to reconstruct how East Africa’s pastoralists responded to significant climate change in the past, and to draw lessons from these adaptations for responding to contemporary climate crises in a region that is witnessing heightened water scarcity and loss of access to critically important grazing lands.”

“This project will allow us to utilise the department’s world-leading archaeological science laboratories and expertise to answer crucial questions about past patterns of mobility, dietary diversity, climatic regimes and food security among East African pastoralists over the last fifteen hundred years. This has never been attempted before for this time period.”

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge said: “Many congratulations to Albert, Beverley, Ian and Paul on receiving these prestigious and highly competitive awards. It is fantastic that their ambitious, cutting-edge research will be supported by the European Research Council, marking them as outstanding European research leaders.

“Now that the UK is an associated country to Horizon Europe I encourage other Cambridge researchers to also consider applying to the ERC and other Horizon Europe programmes.”

President of the European Research Council Professor Maria Leptin said: “Congratulations to the 255 researchers who will receive grants to follow their scientific instinct in this new funding round. I am particularly happy to see more mid-career scientists amongst the Advanced Grant winners this time. I hope that it will encourage more researchers at this career stage to apply for these grants.”

The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. The 255 ERC Advanced Grants, totalling €652 million, support cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields from medicine and physics to social sciences and humanities.

The European Commission and the UK Government have reached an agreement on the association of the UK to Horizon Europe, which applies for calls for proposals implementing the 2024 budget and onwards.

The ERC Advanced Grants target established, leading researchers with a proven track-record of significant achievements. In recent years, there has been a steady rise in mid-career researchers (12-17 years post-PhD), who have been successful in the Advanced Grants competitions, with 18% securing grants in this latest round.

The funding provides leading senior researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

Many congratulations to Albert, Beverley, Ian and Paul... It is fantastic that their ambitious, cutting-edge research will be supported by the European Research Council, marking them as outstanding European research leaders.Anne Ferguson-Smith


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Yes

Pork labelling schemes ‘not helpful’ in making informed buying choices, say researchers

Thu, 11/04/2024 - 10:27

Researchers have evaluated different types of pig farming – including woodland, organic, free range, RSPCA assured, and Red Tractor certified, to assess each systems’ impact across four areas: land use (representing biodiversity loss), greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotics use and animal welfare. Their study concludes that none of the farm types performed consistently well across all four areas – a finding that has important implications for increasingly climate conscious consumers, as well as farmers themselves.

However, there were individual farms that did perform well in all domains, including an indoor Red Tractor farm, an outdoor bred, indoor finished RSPCA assured farm and fully outdoor woodland farm. “Outliers like these show that trade-offs are not inevitable,” said lead author Dr Harriet Bartlett, Research Associate at the University of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, who was formerly at the University of Cambridge.  

“Somewhat unexpectedly we found that a handful of farms perform far better than average across all four of our environmental and welfare measures,” added senior author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge. However, none of the current label or assurance schemes predicted which farms these would be.

“The way we classify farm types and label pork isn’t helpful for making informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainable meat. Even more importantly, we aren’t rewarding and incentivising the best-performing farmers. Instead of focusing on farm types or practices, we need to focus on meaningful outcomes for people, the planet and the pigs – and assess, and reward farms based on these,” said Bartlett.

The findings also show that common assumptions around food labelling can be misplaced. For instance, Organic farming systems, which consumers might see as climate and environmentally friendly, have on average three times the CO2 output per kg of meat of more intensive Red Tractor or RSPCA assured systems and four times the land use. However, these same systems use on average almost 90% fewer antibiotic medicines, and result in improved animal welfare compared with production from Red tractor or RSPCA assured systems.

The way we classify livestock farms must be improved, Bartlett says, because livestock production is growing rapidly, especially pork production, which has quadrupled in the past 50 years and already accounts for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. Pig farming also uses more antibiotics than any other livestock sector, and 8.5% of all arable land.

“Our findings show that mitigating the environmental impacts of livestock farming isn’t a case of saying which farm type is the best,” said Bartlett. “There is substantial scope for improvement within types, and our current means of classification is not identifying the best farms for the planet and animals overall. Instead, we need to identify farms that successfully limit their impacts across all areas of societal concern, and understand, promote and incentivise their practises.”

The study reached its conclusions using data from 74 UK and 17 Brazilian breed-to-finish systems, each made up of 1-3 farms and representing the annual production of over 1.2 million pigs. It is published today in the journal Nature Food.

“To the best of our knowledge, our dataset covers by far the largest and most diverse sample of pig production systems examined in any single study,” said Bartlett.

James Wood, Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science at the University of Cambridge, commented: “This important study identifies a key need to clarify what different farm labels should indicate to consumers; there is a pressing need to extend this work into other farming sectors. It also clearly demonstrates the critical importance that individual farmers play in promoting best practice across all farming systems.”

Trade-offs in the externalities of pig production are not inevitable was authored by academics at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and the University of São Paulo.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference: Bartlett, H.,‘Trade-offs in the externalities of pig production are not inevitable.’ Nature Food, April 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s43016-024-00921-2

Adapted from a press release by the University of Oxford.

Farmers don’t have to choose between lowering environmental impact and improving welfare for their pigs, a new study has found: it is possible to do both. But this is not reflected in the current food labelling schemes relied on by consumers.

The way we classify farm types and label pork isn’t helpful for making informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainable meat.Harriet BartlettCharity Burggraaf/ GettyTwo pigs on a farm


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YesLicence type: Attribution-Noncommerical

Collections-based research and innovation receives vital investment from Research England

Tue, 09/04/2024 - 11:58

The University cares for the country’s highest concentration of internationally important collections outside London, with more than five million works of art, artefacts and specimens. Together, these collections play a fundamental role in delivering the University mission to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence and encompasses collaboration with and support of world-renowned researchers, game-changing research-led exhibitions and wide-ranging inclusion and learning programmes, promoting wellbeing, creativity and connectivity.

“I’m delighted that Research England has made such a strong statement of support for collections-based research at Cambridge, particularly in a challenging funding landscape,” said Kamal Munir, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for University Community and Engagement.

“The University continues to invest in enhanced research infrastructure and services to generate and enable research that spans the arts and the sciences, including via a Strategic Research Initiative, Collections-Connections-Communities that provides a convening space for research that benefits our communities. HEMG funding is critical in ensuring our collections support researchers and students across the UK and worldwide, through infrastructure, services, staffing and equitable collaboration.” 

This year, the University Herbarium joins the portfolio for the first time and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences rejoins the portfolio. 

Sam Brockington, academic lead for the Herbarium, which was recently awarded Designated status, said: “It’s fantastic to see the University Herbarium receive investment in this way. The Herbarium is the fourth-largest of its kind in the country, and a rich resource that supports a huge range of scientific and humanities research. Research supported by the Herbarium ranges from the discovery of species new to science, to the genomics of crop improvement, and investigations into the history and development of scientific ideas and natural history. This investment will enable us to substantially develop our support for the wider academic community.”

Dr Liz Hide, Director of the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, which has been awarded £210,000 a year, said: “I’m delighted that Research England has recognised the strength of the Sedgwick’s collections and their importance to the UK and international research landscape. Over the next five years, this new investment will be transformative for the Sedgwick Museum, ensuring researchers can fully utilise our new Collections Research Centre, and enabling our outstanding collections to inspire many new avenues of research across both the sciences and the humanities.”

Dr Juliette Fritsch, the University’s first Director for Collections’ Strategy, said: "I’m thrilled to work across the incredible resources contained within the University’s museums, libraries, and botanic garden collections to create strategies together, building on major initiatives, such as the cross-collections Power and Memory programme. These integrated approaches enhance our collective impact and are only possible through the input of our funders, including Research England and Arts Council England.”

The full list of University of Cambridge museums and collections awarded HEMG funding are:

1. Cambridge University Botanic Garden 
2. Fitzwilliam Museum 
3. Kettle’s Yard 
4. Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA) 
5. University Museum of Zoology 
6. Polar Museum 
7. Whipple Museum of the History of Science 
8. Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences 
9. Cambridge University Herbarium 

Research England has supported nine of the University’s museums and collections with £3m a year of Higher Education Museums, Galleries and Collections (HEMG) funding, over the coming five years.

HEMG funding is critical in ensuring our collections support researchers and students across the UK and worldwideKamal Munir©markbox.co.ukRhododendron brookianum type specimen from the University of Cambridge Herbarium


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YesLicence type: Attribution

£9.2m boost for next generation of Cambridge cancer experts

Tue, 09/04/2024 - 11:47

The charity is to award the funding over the next five years to train early-career clinician scientists – doctors who also carry out medical research - as part of its Clinical Academic Training Programme. 

The Clinical Academic Training Programme will invest £58.7m at nine research centres including the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre in partnership with the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which includes Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

Clinician scientists play an essential role in translating cancer research, helping to bridge the gap between scientific research carried out in laboratories and clinical research involving patients.  

Dr Caroline Watson – now a Group Leader in the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Haematology Consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital – has benefited from this funding, having previously been awarded a three-year Cancer Research UK Clinical Research Training Fellowship in 2017. Caroline was first author on a Science paper and Nature Genetics paper, based on her Cancer Research UK-funded research, that identified which mutations in healthy blood are associated with the highest risk of developing blood cancer.

Dr Watson said: “As we age, we all acquire mutations in the cells that make up our tissues.  The vast majority are harmless, but some can increase cancer risk. With blood’s relative ease of sampling and improved DNA sequencing costs, we now have enough data, across many thousands of individuals, to determine which specific mutations enable cells to expand most rapidly and could therefore confer the highest risk of cancer. Knowing whether specific mutations are high-risk or clinically insignificant is key for the future of personalised cancer risk. 

“I’m immensely grateful for the funding I received from Cancer Research UK, which provided me with a key stepping stone in my clinician scientist career.  I feel fortunate to now be able to spend the bulk of my time focused on research, but also continue with some clinical work in parallel.  Having been involved in setting up the UK’s first clinic focused on blood cancer prevention at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, I look forward to translating my research findings to directly benefit patients.”

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s Chief Executive, said: “Clinician scientists have a very important role to play by bringing their knowledge and experience of treating people with cancer to scientific research.

“We need all our doctors and scientists to be able to reach their full potential, no matter their background. That’s why we are continuing to provide flexible training options for early-career clinician scientists.”

The contribution of clinician scientists in the new Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital will be critical for the future of cancer research. The East of England specialist cancer hospital planned for the Cambridge Biomedical Campus is bringing together clinical expertise from leading Addenbrooke’s Hospital with world-leading scientists from the University of Cambridge and Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, under one roof.  

This integrated approach will help fast-track cancer innovations and will mean patients across the region can directly benefit from the latest innovations in cancer science.

Becoming a clinician scientist usually involves doctors taking time out of their medical training to undertake a PhD, before returning to train in their chosen specialisation, but many clinicians don’t come back to research after qualifying as consultants. This may be due to existing pressure on the healthcare system and lack of available funding.   

Nearly three quarters (74%) of clinical research staff surveyed by Cancer Research UK in 2023 said that it has become harder to deliver research in a timely manner in the last 18 months, with 78% of respondents describing wider pressures on the health service as a substantial or extreme barrier.  

To tackle this issue, Cancer Research UK’s Clinical Academic Training Programme provides flexible training options alongside mentorship and networking opportunities to better support clinicians who want to get involved and stay in cancer research.  

Data from the Medical Schools Council Clinical Academic Survey reports a decline in the number of clinical academic positions between 2011–2020. Research from the United States also suggests that offering combined qualifications retains more women in clinical research roles.    

Professor Richard Gilbertson, Head of the Department of Oncology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said: “We are delighted to gain further generous support from Cancer Research UK to enable us to provide doctors and medical students with flexible training opportunities, training them to be the clinical cancer research leaders of the future.

“Developing new and effective treatments of cancer requires teams of scientists working in the clinic and laboratory, in all specialities. This funding is crucial to ensure that we train these individuals so that we can make these discoveries to benefit patients with cancer well into the future.”

Adapted from a press release from Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK has announced £9.2m for Cambridge to train the next generation of doctors and scientists to bring new and better cancer treatments to patients faster. 

I’m immensely grateful for the funding I received from Cancer Research UK, which provided me with a key stepping stone in my clinician scientist careerCaroline WatsonCambridge UniversityAddenbrookes Cancer Research Centre


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Yes

Partha Dasgupta wins BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Economics

Thu, 04/04/2024 - 15:14

The 16th edition of the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Economics, Finance and Management honours Professor Dasgupta for his work in defining the field of environmental economics by incorporating and quantifying the social value of nature.

The award also takes into account Professor Dasgupta's leadership of an independent, global review on the Economics of Biodiversity commissioned by the UK Treasury in 2019. The Dasgupta Review is expected to help set the agenda for the UK Government’s 25-year environment plan.

The BBVA awards committee said it commended Professor Dasgupta for laying the foundations of environmental economics through his pioneering work “on the interaction between economic life and the natural environment, including biodiversity.”

“More than any other economist of our time, Partha Dasgupta has stressed the important interplay between economic life and the natural environment," Chair of the BBVA selection committee and Nobel Economics laureate Eric Maskin said, adding that Dasgupta’s work and his proposals for measuring economic well-being “are critical for our time.”

The citation for the award said that Professor Dasgupta provided conceptual foundations for the definition and measurement of sustainable development with the social value of nature as a determining factor. That in contrast with measures of well-being based on flows such as GDP, Dasgupta proposed measuring sustainable development as the change in the accounting value of total wealth, including natural capital within this indicator.

“These ideas...have provided a framework for green accounting which is now widely adopted for measuring sustainable development,” the citation concludes.

“Most economists who work on natural resources or the environment think about nature as providing certain types of goods, like food, clean water, timber, fibres or pharmaceuticals,” Professor Dasgupta said. “So these are goods. These are objects that you can harvest from nature and transform with our human ingenuity into a final product, like the clothes we are wearing or the painting in the room where you are sitting, and so forth. These are the things we make out of the goods that nature gives us.”

At the core of this conventional line of economic thought, he explains, is that when a good becomes scarce, you can substitute it with another offering the same or similar results. But as he delved deeper into the subject, Dasgupta came to realize that nature supplies something much more important and irreplaceable than goods. It supplies processes (or in more economic terms, services).

“My own understanding of economics,” he said, “has moved away from goods to processes. These are the key things we economists should keep in mind. Of course we care about nature’s goods, like water, food and clothing, because without them we wouldn’t be here. But none of this would exist without the underlying processes of nature.”

Climate regulation is among the services, or processes, that Dasgupta uses to illustrate his point: sunlight comes and gets reflected into space, water evaporates and comes down as rain.

“You have the water cycle and you get your drinking water from it. And what is not consumed doesn’t disappear, it just evaporates or becomes part of the ocean through the river system and so forth. But if you mess around too much with climate, you also mess around with the water cycle, which will end up weakened. Likewise, if you deforest too much or get rid of biodiversity in the Amazon, you’re going to exacerbate the climate system. So my work has been to bring these issues into economics.”

Dasgupta believes economics has become over-reliant on the idea that scarcity can be overcome by substituting goods.

“In industrial production, of course, this idea of substitutability has been a great success. Think of all the materials that are produced in engineering departments or material science departments. But there are limits to this, when you tamper with processes. Just think of the human body. You have the metabolic process, which keeps you in a healthy state, and it would be foolish to think you could substitute one process for another. You wouldn’t say let me have less digestive capacity, but more running capacity. It would be silly, because these two things go together.”

The BBVA Foundation centers its activity on the promotion of world-class scientific research and cultural creation, and the recognition of talent.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognise and reward contributions of singular impact in physics and chemistry, mathematics, biology and biomedicine, technology, environmental sciences (climate change, ecology and conservation biology), economics, social sciences, the humanities and music, privileging those that significantly enlarge the stock of knowledge in a discipline, open up new fields, or build bridges between disciplinary areas.

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta (Economics, St. John's) wins the BBVA award for Economics, Finance and Management for his groundbreaking work in environmental economics.

More than any other economist of our time, Partha Dasgupta has stressed the important interplay between economic life and the natural environmentNobel Economics laureate Eric Maskin


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Yes

Scientists identify rare gene variants which confer up to 6-fold increase in risk of obesity

Thu, 04/04/2024 - 13:36

The discovery of rare variants in the genes BSN and APBA1 are some of the first obesity-related genes identified for which the increased risk of obesity is not observed until adulthood.

The study, published in Nature Genetics, was led by researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit and the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit at the Institute of Metabolic Science, both based at the University of Cambridge.

The researchers used UK Biobank and other data to perform whole exome sequencing of body mass index (BMI) in over 500,000 individuals.

They found that genetic variants in the gene BSN, also known as Bassoon, can raise the risk of obesity as much as six times and was also associated with an increased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and of type 2 diabetes.

The Bassoon gene variants were found to affect 1 in 6,500 adults, so could affect about 10,000 people in the UK.

The brain’s role in obesity

Obesity is a major public health concern as it is a significant risk factor for other serious diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, yet the genetic reasons why some people are more prone to weight gain are incompletely understood.

Previous research has identified several obesity-associated gene variants conferring large effects from childhood, acting through the leptin-melanocortin pathway in the brain, which plays a key role in appetite regulation.

However, while both BSN and APBA1 encode proteins found in the brain, they are not currently known to be involved in the leptin-melanocortin pathway. In addition, unlike the obesity genes previously identified, variants in BSN and APBA1 are not associated with childhood obesity.

This has led the researchers to believe that they may have uncovered a new biological mechanism for obesity, different to those we already know for previously identified obesity gene variants.

Based on published research and laboratory studies they report in this paper, which indicate that BSN and APBA1 play a role in the transmission of signals between brain cells, the researchers suggest that age-related neurodegeneration could be affecting appetite control.

Professor John Perry, study author and an MRC Investigator at the University of Cambridge, said: “These findings represent another example of the power of large-scale human population genetic studies to enhance our understanding of the biological basis of disease. The genetic variants we identify in BSN confer some of the largest effects on obesity, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease observed to date and highlight a new biological mechanism regulating appetite control.”

The use of global data

The accessibility of large-scale databases such as UK Biobank has enabled researchers to search for rare gene variants that may be responsible for conditions including obesity.

For this study, the researchers worked closely with AstraZeneca to replicate their findings in existing cohorts using genetic data from individuals from Pakistan and Mexico. This is important as the researchers can now apply their findings beyond individuals of European ancestry.

If the researchers can better understand the neural biology of obesity, it could present more potential drug targets to treat obesity in the future.

Dr Slavé Petrovski, VP of the Centre for Genomics Research at AstraZeneca, said: “Rigorous large-scale studies such as this are accelerating the pace at which we uncover new insights into human disease biology. By collaborating across academia and industry, leveraging global datasets for validation, and embedding a genomic approach to medicine more widely, we will continue to improve our understanding of disease – for the benefit of patients.”

Next steps for research

Professor Giles Yeo, study author based at the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit, added: “We have identified two genes with variants that have the most profound impact on obesity risk at a population level we’ve ever seen, but perhaps more importantly, that the variation in Bassoon is linked to adult-onset and not childhood obesity. Thus these findings give us a new appreciation of the relationship between genetics, neurodevelopment and obesity.”

Reference
Zhao, T et al. Protein-truncating variants in BSN are associated with severe adult-onset obesity, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease. Nat Gen; 4 Apr 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41588-024-01694-x

Adapted from a press release from the Medical Research Council

Cambridge researchers have identified genetic variants in two genes that have some of the largest impacts on obesity risk discovered to date.

We have identified two genes with variants that have the most profound impact on obesity risk at a population level we’ve ever seenGiles YeoWorld Obesity FederationWoman with obesity washing food


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YesLicence type: Attribution

UK-wide trials to begin on blood tests for diagnosing dementia

Thu, 04/04/2024 - 13:15

Professor James Rowe from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Cambridge will co-lead a team that will test multiple existing and novel blood tests, looking at a range of types of dementia.

The trials will capitalise on recent breakthroughs in potential dementia blood tests, and generate the evidence needed for them to be validated for use in the NHS within the next five years.

The teams from Dementias Platform UK (which includes the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford) and UCL make up the Blood Biomarker Challenge - a multi-million pound award given by Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK and the National Institute for Health and Care Research and Gates Ventures including £5m raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. The project aims to revolutionise dementia diagnosis.

Both teams will recruit participants from sites spread across the country, to ensure their findings are applicable to the whole of the UK’s diverse population.

Timely and accurate diagnosis of the diseases that cause dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, is crucial as it means people can access vital care and support and take part in medical research. This will be even more imperative if new treatments are approved for use in the NHS, as these work best for people in the earliest stage of their disease.

Currently, people are usually diagnosed using memory tests and brain scans. These are less accurate than ‘gold standard’ tests like PET scans or lumbar punctures, which can confirm what type of dementia they have. However, only 2% of people can access these specialist tests.

In recent years, a number of different blood tests that can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia have shown very promising results in research settings. But they have yet to be tested widely in clinical settings in the UK.

The READ-OUT team (REAl World Dementia OUTcomes) will be led by Professor James Rowe from Cambridge and Drs Vanessa Raymont and Ivan Koychev from Oxford, who are part of Dementias Platform UK. They will test multiple existing and novel blood tests, looking at a range of types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies. The researchers will also look at whether the blood tests can help detect these diseases at various stages.

Professor Rowe said: “This is a ground-breaking study, to discover the best blood tests for dementia, not just Alzheimer’s but any type of dementia and for anyone, whatever their background age and other health problems. An early accurate diagnosis opens the way to better treatment, support and care. Cambridge researchers will lead the analysis pipeline, and the vital input from patients and families throughout the study.” 

For the first three years, READ-OUT will run a fact finding study that will take blood tests in around 20 Dementias Platform UK sites across the UK, involving 3000 people from diverse populations. In the final 2 years, they will run a clinical trial with 880 people to explore how having a blood test for dementia affects diagnosis and quality of life, patients and carers, impact on care and how the results should be communicated to patients.

Dr Raymont said: “Since I first stepped into a memory clinic 30 years ago there has thankfully been a shift in the way society thinks about dementia. There was previously a feeling that this was just another part of aging, but now we’re seeing that people want to know more about their condition and they want a diagnosis as it helps them access the support they need. Both my parents lived with dementia so I know firsthand the devastation this disease causes, and how a timely and accurate diagnosis can benefit people and their families.”

A second team, ADAPT, will be led by Professor Jonathan Schott and Dr Ashvini Keshavan at UCL and will focus on the most promising biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease, called p-tau217. This reflects levels of two hallmark proteins found inside the brain in Alzheimer’s disease – amyloid and tau. The researchers will carry out a clinical trial to see whether measuring p-tau217 in the blood increases the rate of diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease both in people with early dementia, but also in those with mild, progressive problems with memory.

These complementary research approaches will maximise the chances of providing the evidence needed to prove that blood tests are ready for use in the NHS. They will pave the way for them to be made available to all who might benefit within the next 5 years.

Fiona Carragher, Director of Research and Influencing at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “At the moment only 2% of people with dementia can access the specialised tests needed to demonstrate eligibility for new treatments, leading to unnecessary delays, worry and uncertainty. Blood tests are part of the answer to this problem – they’re quick, easy to administer and cheaper than current, more complex tests. I’ve spent decades working in research and the NHS and, after years of slow progress, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a new chapter on how we treat dementia in this country.”

Dr Sheona Scales, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “It’s fantastic that through collaborating with the leading experts in the dementia community, we can look to bring cutting-edge blood tests for diagnosing dementia within the NHS. And this will be key to widening access to groundbreaking new treatments that are on the horizon.”

For more information about the Blood Biomarker Challenge and how to take part, please visit the Dementia Platforms UK website.

Adapted from a press release from Alzheimer’s Research UK

Cambridge researchers are helping lead countrywide trials to identify accurate and quick blood tests that can diagnose dementia, in a bid to improve the UK’s shocking diagnosis rate.

This is a ground-breaking study, to discover the best blood tests for dementia, not just Alzheimer’s but any type of dementia and for anyone, whatever their background age and other health problems. An early accurate diagnosis opens the way to better treatment, support and careJames Rowemicheile hendersonElderly couple taking a walk through the park


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Last chance to record archaic Greek language ‘heading for extinction’

Wed, 03/04/2024 - 07:00

The initiative, led by Professor Ioanna Sitaridou (Queens' College and Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics), contributes to the UN’s International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-32), which aims ‘to draw global attention on the critical situation of many indigenous languages and to mobilise stakeholders and resources for their preservation, revitalization and promotion.’ 

Romeyka is thought to have only a couple of thousand native speakers left in Turkey’s Trabzon region, but the precise number is hard to calculate especially because of the fact that there is also a large number of heritage speakers in the diaspora and the ongoing language shift to Turkish.

Romeyka does not have a writing system and has been transmitted only orally. Extensive contact with Turkish, the absence of support mechanisms to facilitate intergenerational transmission, socio-cultural stigma, and migration have all taken their toll on Romeyka. A high proportion of native speakers in Trabzon are over 65 years of age and fewer young people are learning the language.

The newly launched trilingual Crowdsourcing Romeyka platform invites members of the public from anywhere in the world to upload audio recordings of Romeyka being spoken.

“Speech crowdsourcing is a new tool which helps speakers build a repository of spoken data for their endangered languages while allowing researchers to document these languages, but also motivating speakers to appreciate their own linguistic heritage. At the same time, by creating a permanent monument of their language, it can help speakers achieve acknowledgement of their identity from people outside of their speech community,” said Prof. Sitaridou, who has been studying Romeyka for the last 16 years.  

The innovative tool is designed by a Harvard undergraduate in Computer Science, Mr Matthew Nazari, himself a heritage speaker of Aramaic. Together they hope that this new tool will also pave the way for the production of language materials in a naturalistic learning environment away from the classroom, but based instead around everyday use, orality, and community.

To coincide with the platform’s launch, Sitaridou is unveiling major new findings about the language’s development and grammar at an exhibition in Greece (details below).

Sitaridou’s most important findings include the conclusion that Romeyka descends from Hellenistic Greek not Medieval Greek, making it distinct from other Modern Greek dialects. “Romeyka is a sister, rather than a daughter, of Modern Greek,” said Sitaridou, Professor of Spanish and Historical Linguistics. “Essentially this analysis unsettles the claim that Modern Greek is an isolate language”.

Over the last 150 years, only four fieldworkers have collected data on Romeyka in Trabzon. By engaging with local communities, particularly female speakers, Sitaridou has amassed the largest collection of audio and video data in existence collected monolingually and amounting to more than 29GB of ethically sourced data, and has authored 21 peer-reviewed publications. A YouTube film about Sitaridou’s fieldwork has received 723,000 views to-date

Grammar and a new phylogeny for Greek

Sitaridou’s analysis of the Romeyka infinitive is key. All other Greek dialects known today have stopped using the infinitive found in ancient Greek. So speakers of Modern Greek would say I want that I go instead of I want to go. But, in Romeyka, the infinitive lives on and Sitaridou has observed uncontroversial proof that this Ancient Greek infinitive can be dated back to Hellenistic Greek due to its preservation in a structure which became obsolete by early Mediaeval times in all other Greek varieties, but continued to be used in Romeyka while also undergoing a cross-linguistically rare mutation to a negative item.

Sitaridou’s findings have significant implications for our understanding of the evolution of Greek, because they suggest that there is more than one Greek language on a par with the Romance languages (which all derived out of Vulgar Latin rather than out of each other).

 
Historical context and new field work sites

The roots of the Greek presence in the Black Sea are steeped in myth: from the journey of Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis, to the Amazons. But what we know is that the Greeks began to spread around the Black Sea from approximately the 6th Century BCE. Ionians founded Miletus, which, in turn, founded Sinope, which, eventually, colonized Trebizond. In the Pontus, the language of the first Greek colonizers of Trebizond was the Ionic Greek of Sinope.

In the 4th Century BCE, the passage of Alexander the Great’s army contributed to the creation of another Greek-speaking centre, to the South of Pontus, at Cappadocia. It is possible that from Cappadocia, Greek may have also spread northwards towards Pontus.

However, the decisive phase for the expansion of the Greek language seems to be Christianization. The inhabitants of Pontus were among the first converts and are mentioned in the New Testament. The Soumela monastery was founded in 386 CE, around 20 years after the region officially adopted Christianity. The fall of Trebizond to the Ottomans in 1461 led to the city becoming majority Muslim.

Prof. Sitaridou said: “Conversion to Islam across Asia Minor was usually accompanied by a linguistic shift to Turkish, but communities in the valleys retained Romeyka. And because of Islamization, they retained some archaic features while the Greek-speaking communities who remained Christian grew closer to Modern Greek, especially because of extensive schooling in Greek in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Recently, Prof. Sitaridou started field working in a new site, Tonya, where no other field worker has ever reached, only to reveal significant grammatical variation between the valleys indicating different Islamisation onset. In a publication, to appear soon, it is argued that both the syntax of subordination and negation systems in Tonya show different patterns and thus diachronic development from the Çaykara variety.

In 1923, under the Greco-Turkish population exchange, Greek-speaking Christians of Pontus were forced to leave Turkey and relocate to Greece while Romeyka-speaking Muslim communities in the Trabzon area remained in their homeland as they professed Islam, explaining why this Greek variety is still spoken in small enclaves in the region. Since 1923 and until very recently the two speech communities were oblivious of each other’s existence.

Preservation of heritage languages and why it matters

Speakers are still reluctant to identify Romeyka as one of their languages since, for Turkish nationalists, speaking Greek goes against the very fundamentals of one’s belonging. From a Greek nationalist perspective, these varieties are deemed ‘contaminated’ and/or disruptive to the ideology of one single Greek language spoken uninterruptedly since antiquity, as Sitaridou explains in an article which is about to be published by the Laz Institute in Istanbul.

In Greece, Turkey and beyond, Sitaridou has used her research to raise awareness of Romeyka, stimulate language preservation efforts and enhance attitudes. In Greece, for instance, Sitaridou co-introduced a pioneering new course on Pontic Greek at the Democritus University of Thrace since the number of speakers of Pontic Greek is also dwindling. 

“Raising the status of minority and heritage languages is crucial to social cohesion, not just in this region, but all over the world,” Prof. Sitaridou said. “When speakers can speak their home languages they feel “seen” and thus they feel more connected to the rest of the society; on the other hand, not speaking the heritage or minority languages creates some form of trauma which in fact undermines the integration which linguistic assimilation takes pride in achieving”.

The same ethos traverses a new AHRC-funded project about the documentation of a critically endangered language, Sri Lanka Portuguese, among Afrodescent communities in north-western Sri Lanka. Sitaridou  will be documenting and analysing manja, the only remaining linguistic and cultural expression of African heritage for these communities.
 

Exhibition at Mohamed Ali’s historical House in Kavala

The Romeyka exhibition runs at the MOHA Research Centre in Kavala, Greece, from 29th March – 28th April 2024.

The exhibition features previously unpublished archival material from Exeter College, Oxford and photographic material from British School of Athens which give us a glimpse into the Greek-speaking communities and language in the southern Black Sea shores 110 years ago taken by R.M. Dawkins, one of the first field workers in the area. This is combined with photographs and video material from Prof. Sitaridou’s own fieldwork, interspersed with panels and audio material to communicate her linguistic findings. 

The exhibition aims to generate further reflections on endangered heritages, fragmented and shared identities and collective memory as well as helping us get a better grasp of multilingualism, localised experiences, intergenerational stories of co-existence and displacement, diasporic selves and language loss, and alternative modalities of being and belonging both in Greece and Turkey.

A new data crowdsourcing platform aims to preserve the sound of Romeyka, an endangered millennia-old variety of Greek. Experts consider the language to be a linguistic goldmine and a living bridge to the ancient world.

Raising the status of minority and heritage languages is crucial to social cohesion, not just in this region, but all over the worldProfessor Ioanna SitaridouProfessor Ioanna SitaridouProfessor Ioanna Sitaridou (right) with a 100 years-old Romeyka speaker in Turkeys Trabzon region. Image: Professor Ioanna Sitaridou


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UK's only research institute dedicated to understanding early cancer receives £11 million donation

Tue, 02/04/2024 - 09:00

Located on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus – the largest bioscience ecosystem in Europe – the Institute brings together world-leading expertise from across diverse fields including biology, physics, mathematics, epidemiology, medicine, and computer science under one roof with one goal: to predict and prevent cancer.

The donation will support the redevelopment of the Hutchison building, home to the Early Cancer Institute. This will enable the Institute to scale up its work, creating the cutting-edge laboratory space needed for its research teams to advance their early detection efforts and expand the Institute's research capabilities, attracting more world-class scientists and clinicians to join its teams.

The building will be renamed the Li Ka Shing Early Cancer Institute in honour of Hong Kong-based philanthropist Sir Ka-shing Li and the enduring partnership between the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the University of Cambridge in progressing the fight against cancer. Sir Ka-shing Li generously donated to the original Hutchison building in 2002, and then – in 2007 – to the Li Ka Shing Centre, which houses the CRUK Cambridge Institute.

Commenting on the renaming of the building in his honour, Sir Ka-shing Li said: "I am greatly encouraged that much advancement has been made towards cancer diagnosis, treatment and prevention. It is also evident now that early detection of cancer will yield the best chance of successful treatment and quality of life for the patient.

"It is a great privilege, therefore, to support the transformation of the Hutchison building to become a centre of excellence and a fitting home for the national Early Cancer Research Institute and a first of its kind in the UK. This inspirational journey with Cambridge University spanning over two decades fulfils my lifetime commitment to build the good of science, and I am truly gratified by this partnership."

Researchers at the Institute are focusing on cancers that are hard to treat, such as lung, oesophageal and liver cancers, and acute myeloid leukaemia. Detection and treatment methods have changed very little for these types of cancer over the past few years, and outcomes are often poor. Detecting and treating cancer earlier will dramatically increase survival rates and reduce healthcare costs across all tumour types.

By working across disciplines to understand the fundamental biology of how cancer develops and evolves, researchers at the Institute are making pioneering early detection research advances and translating these into clinical practice. They have used the power of theoretical physics methods to identify blood cancer years before the patient has symptoms, while biology and chemical engineering experts have collaborated to develop a method to detect and destroy early lung cancer.

The Institute’s director, Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, pioneered the capsule sponge – a new test that can identify ten times more heartburn patients with Barrett’s oesophagus, a pre-cursor to oesophageal cancer. The device which aims to catch the disease when it is easier to treat, thus helping more people survive.

Fitzgerald, also Professor of Cancer Prevention, remarked on the gift’s far-reaching impact, highlighting the importance of the redevelopment in helping researchers make life-saving scientific advances: "This extraordinary gift will provide the cutting-edge research facilities necessary to help our researchers develop pioneering early cancer detection innovations and take these from bench to bedside with even greater speed and focus, resulting in fewer cancer-related deaths worldwide."

Professor Richard Gilbertson, the Li Ka Shing Chair of Oncology said: "It is fitting that the home of this exceptional centre for research into the early detection of cancer should be renamed the Li Ka Shing Early Cancer Institute. From his inaugural gift to establish the Li Ka Shing Centre to house the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, to the endowment of a new Professorship of Oncology, Sir Ka-shing Li has been a generous and constant partner in the University’s pioneering work to help create a world free of the fear of cancer."

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deborah Prentice, said: "New technologies are ensuring that ideas developed here in Cambridge can be used to benefit patients around the world, and we must ensure that as many people as possible are able to benefit from our cancer research. We are very grateful for Sir Ka-shing Li’s longstanding generosity, which has allowed us to make extraordinary progress in understanding this terrible disease. As our work continues, we look forward to developing novel ways of diagnosing cancer earlier and treating it more precisely and effectively."

The University of Cambridge’s Early Cancer Institute – the UK's only research facility dedicated to understanding early cancer – has received a landmark £11 million donation to support its vital work in the fight against cancer.

This extraordinary gift will provide the cutting-edge research facilities necessary to help our researchers develop pioneering early cancer detection innovations... resulting in fewer cancer-related deaths worldwide.Rebecca FitzgeraldCredit: Li Ka Shing FoundationSir Ka-shing Li at the opening of the MRC Cancer Centre in the Hutchinson Building, 18 May 2022


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Yes

Cambridge do the double in 2024 Boat Race

Sat, 30/03/2024 - 18:10

Despite both the Cambridge Men and Women’s Blue Boats starting as underdogs, Cambridge emerged victorious in both races.

In the 78th Women’s Race, despite Oxford taking an early lead, Cambridge caught up and then overtook Oxford. Oxford cox Joe Gellett raised an appeal at the end of the race, arguing that the Cambridge boat had crossed their path, but after a discussion with umpire Richard Phelps the appeal was dismissed.

In the 169th Men’s Race, Cambridge took an early lead but slowed towards the end with stroke Matt Edge struggling, but with his teammates digging in they held on for what was in the end a comfortable victory.

All in all it was a fantastic weekend for Cambridge, with the Light Blues dominating the results, with Goldie winning the Men’s Reserve race, and the Cambridge Men’s Lightweight and Women’s Lightweight Crews winning on Friday.

“This Boat Race just means so much, this Club just means so much” said victorious Men’s President Seb Benzecry.

“This season has been the most amazing season, it’s been challenging, we’ve pushed ourselves harder than any team I’ve been a part of before. We knew Oxford would pose a huge challenge this year to us, we knew we had to step on. I couldn’t be prouder of the ways the guys responded to that challenge, in a year when basically every single boat was an underdog.”

Women’s President Jenna Armstrong said she was almost pinching herself at the result.

“I almost can’t believe it. This year we were slated as the underdogs going in to the race. Our race plan was to go out and row our best race, go as fast as possible and hang on and wait for an opportunity to pop up - and that’s what we did.”

Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice, who was watching her first Boat Race after joining in July last year, said it had been a fantastic weekend.

“It was brilliant, utterly brilliant – everything I expected and more,” she said. “This is my first time at the Boat Race obviously and I heard Oxford started as favourites so I didn’t expect Cambridge to come out ahead like this.

“I went out to see the Women’s Blue Boat training earlier this year and today I could see the fruits of the labour that they put in, going out every day at 5.30 in the morning – it’s incredible.”

Cambridge have done the double in the Boat Race, winning both the Men’s and Women’s races in a thrilling day of action on the Thames.

Nordin ĆatićThe victorious Cambridge Men and Women’s Blue Boat crews


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Yes

New approach to monitoring freshwater quality can identify sources of pollution, and predict their effects

Thu, 28/03/2024 - 18:00

The source of pollutants in rivers and freshwater lakes can now be identified using a comprehensive new water quality analysis, according to scientists at the University of Cambridge and Trent University, Canada.

Microparticles from car tyres, pesticides from farmers’ fields, and toxins from harmful algal blooms are just some of the organic chemicals that can be detected using the new approach, which also indicates the impact these chemicals are likely to have in a particular river or lake.

Importantly, the approach can also point to the origin of specific organic matter dissolved in the water, because it has a distinct composition depending on its source.

The approach uses a technique called high-resolution mass spectrometry to analyse water samples: within an hour this provides a comprehensive overview of all the organic molecules present.

Water quality is strongly determined by the diversity of organic matter dissolved in it – termed ‘chemodiversity.’ The scientists say that the thousands of different dissolved organic compounds can keep freshwater ecosystems healthy, or contribute to their decline, depending on the mixture present.

The paper is published today in the journal Science.

“Traditional approaches to monitoring water quality involve taking lots of different measurements with many devices, which takes a lot of time. Our technique is a very simple way to get a comprehensive overview of what’s going on in a particular river or lake,” said Jérémy Fonvielle, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Departments of Plant Sciences and Biochemistry, and co-author of the paper.

To understand what drives this chemodiversity, the team reviewed studies of dissolved organic matter in freshwater samples from rivers and lakes across Europe and northern Canada.

For example, water analysis of Lake Erie in Canada revealed high levels of phosphorus pollution. By looking at the composition of individual molecules in the water sample, researchers identified agricultural activities as the source of this pollution, rather than wastewater effluent. 

“Whereas before, we could measure the amount of organic nitrogen or phosphorus pollution in a river, we couldn't really identify where pollution was coming from. With our new approach we can use the unique molecular fingerprint of different sources of pollution in freshwater to identify their source,” said Dr Andrew Tanentzap at Trent University School of the Environment, co-author of the report.

Traditional approaches involve separately measuring many indicators of ecosystem health, such as the level of organic nutrients or particular pollutants like nitrogen. These can indicate the condition of the water, but not why this state has arisen.

Dissolved organic matter is one of the most complex mixtures on Earth. It consists of thousands of individual molecules, each with their own unique properties. This matter influences many processes in rivers and lakes, including nutrient cycling, carbon storage, light absorption, and food web interactions - which together determine ecosystem function.

Sources of dissolved organic matter in freshwater include urban runoff, agricultural runoff, aerosols and wildfires.

“It's possible to monitor the health of freshwater through the diversity of compounds that are present. Our approach can, and is, being rolled out across the UK,” said Tanentzap.

Fonvielle will now apply this technique to analysing water samples from farmland drainage ditches in the Fens, as part of a project run by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Landscape Regeneration to understand freshwater health in this agricultural landscape.

The research was funded primarily by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the European Research Council.

Reference: Tanentzap, A.J. and Fonvielle, J.A: ‘Chemodiversity in freshwater health.’ Science, March 2024. DOI: 10.1126/science.adg8658

Analysing the diversity of organic compounds dissolved in freshwater provides a reliable measure of ecosystem health, say scientists.

Our technique is a very simple way to get a comprehensive overview of what’s going on in a particular river or lake.Jérémy FonvielleSam WoodmanStudy lake in Norway


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TB vaccine may enable elimination of the disease in cattle by reducing its spread

Thu, 28/03/2024 - 18:00

The research, led by the University of Cambridge and Penn State University, improves prospects for the elimination and control of bovine tuberculosis (TB), an infectious disease of cattle that results in large economic costs and health impacts across the world.  

This is the first study to show that BCG-vaccinated cattle infected with TB are substantially less infectious to other cattle. This remarkable indirect effect of the vaccine beyond its direct protective effect has not been measured before.

The spillover of infection from livestock has been estimated to account for about 10% of human tuberculosis cases. While such zoonotic TB (zTB) infections are most commonly associated with gastro-intestinal infections related to drinking contaminated milk, zTB can also cause chronic lung infections in humans. Lung disease caused by zTB can be indistinguishable from regular tuberculosis, but is more difficult to treat due to natural antibiotic resistance in the cattle bacteria.

TB remains endemic in many countries around the world, including in Europe and the Americas, where its control costs farmers and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The study is published today in the journal Science.

In the study, carried out in Ethiopia, researchers examined the ability of the vaccine, Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG), to directly protect cattle that receive it, as well as to indirectly protect both vaccinated and unvaccinated cattle by reducing TB transmission. Vaccinated and unvaccinated animals were put into enclosures with naturally infected animals, in a novel crossover design performed over two years.

“Our study found that BCG vaccination reduces TB transmission in cattle by almost 90%. Vaccinated cows also developed significantly fewer visible signs of TB than unvaccinated ones. This suggests that the vaccination not only reduces the progression of the disease, but that if vaccinated animals become infected, they are substantially less infectious to others,” said Andrew Conlan, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine and a corresponding author of the study.

Using livestock census and movement data from Ethiopia, the team developed a transmission model to explore the potential for routine vaccination to control bovine tuberculosis.

“Results of the model suggest that vaccinating calves within the dairy sector of Ethiopia could reduce the reproduction number of the bacterium — the R0 — to below 1, arresting the projected increase in the burden of disease and putting herds on a pathway towards elimination of TB,” Conlan said.

The team focused their studies in Ethiopia, a country with the largest cattle herd in Africa and a rapidly growing dairy sector that has a growing burden of bovine tuberculosis and no current control program, as a representative of similarly situated transitional economies.

“Bovine tuberculosis is largely uncontrolled in low- and middle-income countries, including Ethiopia,” said Abebe Fromsa, associate professor of agriculture and veterinary medicine at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and the study’s co-lead author. “Vaccination of cattle has the potential to provide significant benefits in these regions.”

“For over a hundred years, programs to eliminate bovine tuberculosis have relied on intensive testing and slaughtering of infected animals,” said Vivek Kapur, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases and Huck Distinguished Chair in Global Health at Penn State and a corresponding author of the study.

He added: “This approach is unimplementable in many parts of the world for economic and social reasons, resulting in considerable animal suffering and economic losses from lost productivity, alongside an increased risk of spillover of infection to humans. By vaccinating cattle, we hope to be able to protect both cattle and humans from the consequences of this devastating disease.”

Professor James Wood, Alborada Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, noted that despite TB being more prevalent in lower-income countries, the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand also experience considerable economic pressures from the disease which continues to persist despite intensive and costly control programs.

Wood said: “For over twenty-years the UK government has pinned hopes on cattle vaccination for bovine tuberculosis as a solution to reduce the disease and the consequent costs of the controls. These results provide important support for the epidemiological benefit that cattle vaccination could have to reduce rates of transmission to and within herds.”

This research was supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Economic & Social Research Council; Medical Research Council; Natural Environment Research Council; and Defence Science & Technology.

Reference: Fromsa, A. et al: ‘BCG vaccination of cattle reduces transmission of bovine tuberculosis, improving the prospects for elimination.’ Science, March 2024. DOI: 10.1126/science.adl3962

Vaccination not only reduces the severity of TB in infected cattle, but reduces its spread in dairy herds by 89%, research finds.

Our study suggests that vaccination not only reduces the progression of the disease, but that if vaccinated animals become infected, they are substantially less infectious to others.Andrew ConlanGetty/ kamisokaHerd of cows in a grassy field


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YesLicence type: Attribution-Noncommerical

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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