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Cambridge student Giulio Regeni remembered

Thu, 25/01/2024 - 15:57

The plaque offers a space in which colleagues and friends of the Cambridge PhD student, who studied at Girton, can pay their respects.

Giulio, an experienced researcher, was conducting fieldwork when he was abducted from the streets of Cairo on 25 January 2016, and later found murdered on 3 February 2016. The plaque unveiling marks the 8-year anniversary of his death. No one has yet been convicted of the crime.

Court officials in Rome have charged four Egyptian security officials with Giulio’s abduction, torture and murder, and a trial is due to begin in February. The College and University continue to stand in support of Giulio’s family and friends, and with Amnesty International, in their tireless efforts to uncover the truth of what happened to Giulio.

Elisabeth Kendall, Mistress of Girton College, said: “The loss of Giulio continues to cast a dark shadow over all those who knew him. Giulio was a passionate researcher with a deep sense of justice who had his whole life ahead of him before it was cruelly ended in Cairo. Justice has yet to be done. We will never stop remembering Giulio.”

Every year the College marks the anniversary by flying the College flag to half-mast in memory on 25 January and then on 3 February.

Giulio Regeni was remembered during an event at Girton College, where a plaque was unveiled in his honour.

Giulio was a passionate researcher with a deep sense of justice.Elisabeth Kendall, Mistress of Girton CollegeGirton College, University of Cambridge.Elisabeth Kendall, Mistress of Girton College, unveils the plaque honouring Giulio Regeni.


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Yes

New Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation appointed

Wed, 24/01/2024 - 12:06

Dr O’Brien will take over from current Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor Andy Neely, whose term of office finishes at the end of February. Dr O’Brien, who has a PhD in Physics from the University of Sheffield and a degree in Materials Science from Trinity College Dublin, joined Cambridge Enterprise from Trinity College Dublin, where he was Chief Innovation Officer. At Cambridge Enterprise he has led a new strategy which has supported activities such as the establishment of Innovate Cambridge, the formation of Founders at the University of Cambridge, the integration and renewal of ideaSpace and the commencement of the Technology Investment Fund to support the development of University intellectual property.

“The University and the broader Cambridge ecosystem are recognised as being globally leading for innovation, enterprise and entrepreneurship,” said Dr O’Brien.
“I have seen this first-hand from my role as Chief Executive of Cambridge Enterprise and in helping to establish Innovate Cambridge. I look forward to my new role as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation and continuing to enhance the ambition for how the University of Cambridge can enable impact from our research and through our innovation partnerships.”

He replaces Professor Andy Neely, who has served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations since March 2017, and received an OBE for services to University/Industry Collaboration in 2020. Professor Neely’s achievements as Pro-Vice-Chancellor included leading the University’s Recovery Programme helping the University respond to the coronavirus pandemic, overseeing the establishment of the Change and Programme Management Board, as well as building far stronger links with the local and regional innovation community through important initiatives such as Innovate Cambridge.

Professor Neely said: “I’m honoured to have served in this role for seven years and delighted that Diarmuid has been appointed as my successor. The University of Cambridge’s impact on the world is significantly enhanced by our engagement with business and our world-leading innovation ecosystem and I have no doubt that this will go from strength to strength under Diarmuid’s leadership”.

The University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice welcomed Dr O’Brien to the role and thanked Professor Neely for his service.

She said: “I warmly congratulate Diarmuid on being appointed to this important role. With his wealth of experience in driving innovation, most recently at Cambridge Enterprise, he will help ensure no momentum is lost in the handover from the previous Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Andy Neely.
“I would like to put on record my sincerest thanks to Andy for his service to Cambridge, both as an academic leader and as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations. I know I speak on behalf of all University colleagues when I say how grateful we are for what he has achieved in that role over the past seven years.”

The Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation is broadly the same role as the current Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations role, but with an enhanced focus on industry, enterprise and innovation.

Dr O’Brien takes up the role in April, and will remain in his current capacity at Cambridge Enterprise for one day a week to provide continuity and connection with Cambridge Enterprise.

There are five Pro-Vice-Chancellors at the University of Cambridge. Their role is to work in partnership with senior administrators to help drive strategy and policy development. The Pro-Vice-Chancellors also support the Vice-Chancellor in providing academic leadership to the University.
 

Dr Diarmuid O’Brien has been appointed as the University of Cambridge’s new Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation. He is currently Chief Executive of Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm which supports academics, researchers, staff and students in achieving knowledge transfer and research impact.

RMG PhotographyDr Diarmuid O’Brien


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Yes

Removing largest wine glass serving reduces amount of wine sold in bars and pubs

Thu, 18/01/2024 - 19:00

While only modest, the finding could provide one way of nudging customers to drink less alcohol and have an impact at a population level, say the researchers.

Alcohol consumption is the fifth largest contributor to premature death and disease worldwide. In 2016 it was estimated to have caused approximately 3 million deaths worldwide.

There are many factors that influence how much we drink, from advertising to labelling to availability and cost. Previous research from the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at Cambridge has shown that even glass size can influence how much alcohol is consumed.

In research published today in PLOS Medicine, the Cambridge team carried out a study in 21 licensed premises (mainly pubs) in England to see whether removing their largest serving of wine by the glass for four weeks would have an impact on how much wine is consumed. Wine is the most commonly drunk alcoholic drink in the UK and Europe. Twenty of the premises completed the experiment as designed by the researchers and were included in the final analysis.

After adjusting for factors such as day of the week and total revenue, the researchers found that removing the largest wine glass serving led to an average (mean) decrease of 420ml of wine sold per day per venue – equating to a 7.6% decrease.

There was no evidence that sales of beer and cider increased, suggesting that people did not compensate for their reduced wine consumption by drinking more of these alcoholic drinks. There was also no evidence that it affected total daily revenues, implying that participating licensed premises did not lose money as a result of removing the largest serving size for glasses of wine, perhaps due to the higher profit margins of smaller serving sizes of wine. However, it is important to note that the study was not designed to provide statistically meaningful data on these points.

First author Dr Eleni Mantzari, from the University of Cambridge, said: “It looks like when the largest serving size of wine by the glass was unavailable, people shifted towards the smaller options, but didn’t then drink the equivalent amount of wine.

“People tend to consume a specific number of ‘units’ – in this case glasses – regardless of portion size. So, someone might decide at the outset they’ll limit themselves to a couple of glasses of wine, and with less alcohol in each glass they drink less overall.”

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, the study’s senior author and an Honorary Fellow at Christ’s College Cambridge, added: “It’s worth remembering that no level of alcohol consumption is considered safe for health, with even light consumption contributing to the development of many cancers. Although the reduction in the amount of wine sold at each premise was relatively small, even a small reduction could make a meaningful contribution to population health.”

Evidence suggests that the public prefer information-based interventions, such as health warning labels, to reductions in serving or package sizes. However, in this study, managers at just four of the 21 premises reported receiving complaints from customers.

The researchers note that although the intervention would potentially be acceptable to pub or bar managers, given there was no evidence that it can result in a loss in revenue, a nationwide policy would likely be resisted by the alcohol industry given its potential to reduce sales of targeted drinks. Public support for such a policy would depend on its effectiveness and how clearly this was communicated.

The research was funded by Wellcome.

Reference
Mantzari, E et al. Impact on wine sales of removing the largest serving size by the glass: an A-B-A reversal trial in 21 pubs, bars and restaurants in England. PLOS Medicine; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1004313

Taking away the largest serving of wine by the glass – in most cases the 250ml option – led to an average reduction in the amount of wine sold at pubs and bars of just under 8%, new research led by a team at the University of Cambridge has discovered.

When the largest serving size of wine by the glass was unavailable, people shifted towards the smaller options, but didn’t then drink the equivalent amount of wineEleni Mantzarihcdeharder (Pixabay)Red and white wine in glasses


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Galaxy mergers solve early Universe mystery

Thu, 18/01/2024 - 16:28

This has solved one of the most puzzling mysteries in astronomy – why astronomers detect light from hydrogen atoms that should have been entirely blocked by the pristine gas that formed after the Big Bang.

These new observations have found small, faint objects surrounding the galaxies that show the ‘inexplicable’ hydrogen emission. In conjunction with state-of-the-art simulations of galaxies in the early Universe, the observations have shown that the chaotic merging of these neighbouring galaxies is the source of this hydrogen emission. The results are reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Light travels at a finite speed (300 000 km a second), which means that the further away a galaxy is, the longer it has taken the light from it to reach our Solar System. As a result, not only do observations of the most distant galaxies probe the far reaches of the Universe, but they also allow us to study the Universe as it was in the past.

To study the early Universe, astronomers require exceptionally powerful telescopes that are capable of observing very distant – and therefore very faint – galaxies. One of Webb’s key capabilities is its ability to observe these galaxies, and probe the early history of the Universe.

The earliest galaxies were sites of vigorous and active star formation, and were rich sources of a type of light emitted by hydrogen atoms called Lyman-α emission. However, during the epoch of reionisation, an immense amount of neutral hydrogen gas surrounded these stellar nurseries. Furthermore, the space between galaxies was filled by more of this neutral gas than is the case today. The gas can effectively absorb and scatter this kind of hydrogen emission, so astronomers have long predicted that the abundant Lyman-α emission released in the early Universe should not be observable today.

This theory has not always stood up to scrutiny, however, as examples of early hydrogen emission have previously been observed by astronomers. This has presented a mystery: how is it that this hydrogen emission – which should have long since been absorbed or scattered – is being observed?

“One of the most puzzling issues that previous observations presented was the detection of light from hydrogen atoms in the very early Universe, which should have been entirely blocked by the pristine neutral gas that was formed after the Big Bang,” said lead author Callum Witten from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. “Many hypotheses have previously been suggested to explain the great escape of this ‘inexplicable’ emission.”

The team’s breakthrough came thanks to Webb’s combination of angular resolution and sensitivity. The observations with Webb’s NIRCam instrument were able to resolve smaller, fainter galaxies that surround the bright galaxies from which the ‘inexplicable’ hydrogen emission had been detected. In other words, the surroundings of these galaxies appear to be a much busier place than we previously thought, filled with small, faint galaxies.

These smaller galaxies were interacting and merging with one another, and Webb has revealed that galaxy mergers play an important role in explaining the mystery emission from the earliest galaxies.

“Where Hubble was seeing only a large galaxy, Webb sees a cluster of smaller interacting galaxies, and this revelation has had a huge impact on our understanding of the unexpected hydrogen emission from some of the first galaxies,” said co-author Sergio Martin-Alvarez from Stanford University.

The team then used computer simulations to explore the physical processes that might explain their results. They found that the rapid build-up of stellar mass through galaxy mergers both drove strong hydrogen emission and facilitated the escape of that radiation via channels cleared of the abundant neutral gas. So, the high merger rate of the previously unobserved smaller galaxies presented a compelling solution to the long-standing puzzle of the ‘inexplicable’ early hydrogen emission.

The team is planning follow-up observations with galaxies at various stages of merging, to continue to develop their understanding of how the hydrogen emission is ejected from these changing systems. Ultimately, this will enable them to improve our understanding of galaxy evolution.

Reference:
Callum Witten et al. ‘Deciphering Lyman-α emission deep into the epoch of reionization.’ Nature Astronomy (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-023-02179-3

Adapted from an ESA press release.

A team of astronomers, led by the University of Cambridge, has used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to reveal, for the first time, what lies in the local environment of galaxies in the very early Universe.

ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, S. Finkelstein (UT Austin), M. Bagley (UT Austin), R. Larson (UT Austin), A. Pagan (STScI), C. Witten, M. Zooming in on three neighbouring galaxies (NIRCam image)


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Yes

New admissions tests for 2024

Thu, 18/01/2024 - 10:11

Cambridge and Imperial will provide two sets of tests. The Engineering and Science Admissions Test (ESAT) will be used for degree programmes in Engineering, Natural Sciences, Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, and Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge, and Physics and most Engineering degrees at Imperial.

The Test of Mathematics for University Admission (TMUA) will be used for Economics and Computer Science degrees at Cambridge, and both the Economics, Finance and Data Science and Computing degrees at Imperial. A number of other UK universities will also use the TMUA for assessing applications for mathematically-based courses.

Pearson VUE is the certification and licensure arm of Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, providing assessment services to many institutions in the academic and admissions space. From October 2024 students will take a new computer based assessment at a Pearson VUE test centre, selecting from a global network of more than 5,500 locations in more than 180 countries. Mike Nicholson, Director of Recruitment, Admissions and Participation at Cambridge said “We are delighted to be able to provide computer based admissions tests from 2024, and in locations that take the burden off teachers and schools to act as test centres.”

Cambridge and Imperial will also be using the UCAT assessment for admission to their medical degrees from 2024, also provided through Pearson VUE, and Cambridge will continue to use the LNAT test for Law admissions.

Applicants will be required to pay an administration charge to take the tests, in line with other comparable institutions, but a fee waiver will be applied for UK-based applicants who are eligible for free school meals or who meet a number of other widening participation criteria. Nicholson added that “It is important that cost is not a barrier to participation, and the model we are using for the fee waivers has been successfully used for other admissions tests supported by Pearson”.

Lizzie Burrows, Director of Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions at Imperial said “The applicant experience is at the heart of our ambitions. With the number of applications expected to continue to rise over coming years, universities need to find ways to fairly select the best candidates while minimising the burden on our applicants.”

We hope that these tests, operating through Pearson VUE’s well established test centre network  will encourage other universities to use the TMUA and ESAT as assessments and streamline the admissions process for students.”

To attract a wider range of applicants the TMUA and ESAT will run test-sittings in mid-October 2024 and early January 2025 to reflect the two main deadlines for courses in the UCAS admissions process. Applicants to Cambridge must take the Autumn sitting.

Matthew Poyiadgi, Vice President EMEA and Asia at Pearson VUE, commented “As academic settings and admissions programmes continue to evolve in an increasingly digital world, computer-based assessments drive greater efficiencies. We look forward to collaborating with Imperial and Cambridge on this transition and supporting applicants to these world-leading universities in proving their potential.’’ 

More information can be found here.

The University of Cambridge and Imperial College London are to launch a new joint venture to deliver admissions tests for science, engineering and mathematics based degree courses. The tests, which will be delivered by global assessments leader, Pearson VUE, aim to improve the experience of students applying for highly competitive undergraduate courses while helping universities to fairly assess the skills of the brightest applicants. 

We are delighted to be able to provide computer based admissions tests from 2024Mike NicholsonSenate House


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Yes

‘Mini-placentas’ help scientists understand the causes of pre-eclampsia and pregnancy disorders

Wed, 17/01/2024 - 16:00

The study, published today in Cell Stem Cell, shows that it is possible to experiment on a developing human placenta, rather than merely observe specimens, in order to study major disorders of pregnancy.

Successful pregnancy depends on the development of the placenta in the first few weeks of gestation. During this period, the placenta implants itself into the endometrium – the mucosal lining of the mother’s uterus.

Interactions between the cells of the endometrium and the cells of the placenta are critical to whether a pregnancy is successful. In particular, these interactions are essential to increase the maternal blood supply to the placenta, necessary for fetal growth and development.

When these interactions do not work properly, they can lead to complications, such as pre-eclampsia, a condition that causes high blood pressure during pregnancy. Pre-eclampsia occurs in around six in 100 first pregnancies and can put at risk the health of both the mother and the baby.

Professor Ashley Moffett from the Department of Pathology at the University of Cambridge said: “Most of the major disorders of pregnancy – pre-eclampsia, still birth, growth restriction, for example – depend on failings in the way the placenta develops in the first few weeks. This is a process that is incredibly difficult to study – the period after implantation, when the placenta embeds itself into the endometrium, is often described as a ‘black box of human development’.

“Over the past few years, many scientists – including several at Cambridge – have developed embryo-like models to help us understand early pre-implantation development. But further development is impeded because we understand so little about the interactions between the placenta and the uterus.”

Professor Moffett and colleagues at the Friedrich Miescher Institute, Switzerland, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge, have used ‘mini-placentas’ – a cellular model of the early stages of the placenta – to provide a window into early pregnancy and help improve our understanding of reproductive disorders. Known as ‘trophoblast organoids’, these are grown from placenta cells and model the early placenta so closely that they have previously been shown to record a positive response on an over-the-counter pregnancy test.

In previous work, Professor Moffett and colleagues identified genes that increase the risk of or protect against conditions such as pre-eclampsia. These highlighted the important role of immune cells uniquely found in the uterus, known as ‘uterine natural killer cells’, which cluster in the lining of the womb at the site where the placenta implants. These cells mediate the interactions between the endometrium and the cells of the placenta.

In their new study, her team applied proteins secreted by the uterine natural killer cells to the trophoblast organoids so that they could mimic the conditions where the placenta implants itself. They identified particular proteins that were crucial to helping the organoids develop. These proteins will contribute to successful implantation, allowing the placenta to invade the uterus and transform the mother’s arteries.

“This is the only time that we know of where a normal cell invades and transforms an artery, and these cells are coming from another individual, the baby,” said Professor Moffett, who is also a Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge.

“If the cells aren’t able to invade properly, the arteries in the womb don’t open up and so the placenta – and therefore the baby – are starved of nutrients and oxygen. That's why you get problems later on in pregnancy, when there just isn't enough blood to feed the baby and it either dies or is very tiny.”

The researchers also found several genes that regulate blood flow and help with this implantation, which Professor Moffett says provide pointers for future research to better understand pre-eclampsia and similar disorders.

Dr Margherita Turco, from the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Switzerland and co-lead of this work, added: “Despite affecting millions of women a year worldwide, we still understand very little about pre-eclampsia. Women usually present with pre-eclampsia at the end of pregnancy, but really to understand it – to predict it and prevent it – we have to look at what's happening in the first few weeks.

“Using ‘mini-placentas’, we can do just that, providing clues as to how and why pre-eclampsia occurs. This has helped us unpick some of the key processes that we should now focus on far more. It shows the power of basic science in helping us understand our fundamental biology, something that we hope will one day make a major difference to the health of mothers and their babies.”

The research was supported by Wellcome, the Royal Society, European Research Council and Medical Research Council.

Reference
Li, Q et al. Human uterine natural killer cells regulate differentiation of extravillous trophoblast early in pregnancy. Cell Stem Cell; 17 Jan 2024; DOI: doi.org/10.1016/j.stem.2023.12.013

Scientists have grown ‘mini-placentas’ in the lab and used them to shed light on how the placenta develops and interacts with the inner lining of the womb – findings that could help scientists better understand and, in future, potentially treat pre-eclampsia.

Most of the major disorders of pregnancy – pre-eclampsia, still birth, growth restriction, for example – depend on failings in the way the placenta develops in the first few weeks. This is a process that is incredibly difficult to study.Ashley MoffettFriedrich Miescher Institute/University of CambridgePlacental organoid (circle in the centre). Trophoblast cells are invading out of the organoid, mimicking placental cells invading the uterus in the early weeks of pregnancy.


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Yes

Astronomers detect oldest black hole ever observed

Wed, 17/01/2024 - 15:59

The international team, led by the University of Cambridge, used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to detect the black hole, which dates from 400 million years after the big bang, more than 13 billion years ago. The results, which lead author Professor Roberto Maiolino says are “a giant leap forward”, are reported in the journal Nature.

That this surprisingly massive black hole – a few million times the mass of our Sun – even exists so early in the universe challenges our assumptions about how black holes form and grow. Astronomers believe that the supermassive black holes found at the centre of galaxies like the Milky Way grew to their current size over billions of years. But the size of this newly-discovered black hole suggests that they might form in other ways: they might be ‘born big’ or they can eat matter at a rate that’s five times higher than had been thought possible.

According to standard models, supermassive black holes form from the remnants of dead stars, which collapse and may form a black hole about a hundred times the mass of the Sun. If it grew in an expected way, this newly-detected black hole would take about a billion years to grow to its observed size. However, the universe was not yet a billion years old when this black hole was detected.

“It’s very early in the universe to see a black hole this massive, so we’ve got to consider other ways they might form,” said Maiolino, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute for Cosmology. “Very early galaxies were extremely gas-rich, so they would have been like a buffet for black holes.”

Like all black holes, this young black hole is devouring material from its host galaxy to fuel its growth. Yet, this ancient black hole is found to gobble matter much more vigorously than its siblings at later epochs.

The young host galaxy, called GN-z11, glows from such an energetic black hole at its centre. Black holes cannot be directly observed, but instead they are detected by the tell-tale glow of a swirling accretion disc, which forms near the edges of a black hole. The gas in the accretion disc becomes extremely hot and starts to glow and radiate energy in the ultraviolet range. This strong glow is how astronomers are able to detect black holes.

GN-z11 is a compact galaxy, about one hundred times smaller than the Milky Way, but the black hole is likely harming its development. When black holes consume too much gas, it pushes the gas away like an ultra-fast wind. This ‘wind’ could stop the process of star formation, slowly killing the galaxy, but it will also kill the black hole itself, as it would also cut off the black hole’s source of ‘food’.

Maiolino says that the gigantic leap forward provided by JWST makes this the most exciting time in his career. “It’s a new era: the giant leap in sensitivity, especially in the infrared, is like upgrading from Galileo’s telescope to a modern telescope overnight,” he said. “Before Webb came online, I thought maybe the universe isn’t so interesting when you go beyond what we could see with the Hubble Space Telescope. But that hasn’t been the case at all: the universe has been quite generous in what it’s showing us, and this is just the beginning.”

Maiolino says that the sensitivity of JWST means that even older black holes may be found in the coming months and years. Maiolino and his team are hoping to use future observations from JWST to try to find smaller ‘seeds’ of black holes, which may help them untangle the different ways that black holes might form: whether they start out large or they grow fast.

The research was supported in part by the European Research Council, the Royal Society, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

 

Reference:
Roberto Maiolino et al. ‘A small and vigorous black hole in the early Universe.’ Nature (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07052-5

Researchers have discovered the oldest black hole ever observed, dating from the dawn of the universe, and found that it is ‘eating’ its host galaxy to death.

It’s a new era: the giant leap in sensitivity, especially in the infrared, is like upgrading from Galileo’s telescope to a modern telescope overnightRoberto MaiolinoNASA, ESA, and P. Oesch (Yale University)The GN-z11 galaxy, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Role of inherited genetic variants in rare blood cancer uncovered

Wed, 17/01/2024 - 10:03

Large-scale genetic analysis has helped researchers uncover the interplay between cancer-driving genetic mutations and inherited genetic variants in a rare type of blood cancer.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, Wellcome Sanger Institute, and collaborators, combined various comprehensive data sets to understand the impact of both cancer-driving spontaneous mutations and inherited genetic variation on the risk of developing myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN).

The study, published today in the journal Nature Genetics, describes how inherited genetic variants can influence whether a spontaneous mutation in a particular gene increases the risk of developing this rare blood cancer.

This analysis has an impact on current clinical predictions of disease development in individuals. Further research is required to understand the biological mechanisms behind how these inherited genetic variants influence the chances of developing rare blood cancer. In the future, this knowledge could aid drug development and interventions that reduce the risk of disease.

Myeloproliferative neoplasms, MPNs, are a group of rare, chronic, blood cancers. There are around 4,000 cases of MPN in the UK each year. These occur when the bone marrow overproduces blood cells, which can result in blood clots and bleeding. MPNs can also progress into other forms of blood cancer, such as leukaemia.

In the population, there is a large amount of natural variation between individuals’ blood cells, which can affect the amount of blood cells a person has and their particular traits. This is because multiple different genes can influence blood cell features in an individual. During routine blood tests, researchers take known information about these genes and analyse the variation to give a genetic risk score, which is how likely that individual is to develop a disease over their lifetime.  

MPNs have been linked to random somatic mutations in certain genes including in a gene called JAK2. However, mutated JAK2 is commonly found in the global population, and the vast majority of these individuals do not have or go on to develop MPN.

Whilst previous studies have identified over a dozen associated inherited genetic variants that increase the risk of MPN, these studies insufficiently explain why most individuals in the population do not go on to develop MPN.

This new study, from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and collaborators, combined information on the known somatic driver mutations in MPN, inherited genetic variants, and genetic risk scores from individuals with MPN.

They found that the inherited variants that cause natural blood cell variation in the population also impact whether a JAK2 somatic mutation will go on to cause MPN.  They also found that individuals with an inherited risk of having a higher blood cell count could display MPN features in the absence of cancer-driving mutations, thus, mimicking disease.

Dr Jing Guo, from the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Sanger Institute and first author of the study, said: “Our large-scale statistical study has helped fill the knowledge gaps in how variants in DNA, both inherited and somatic, interact to influence complex disease risk. By combining these three different types of datasets we were able to get a more complete picture of how these variants combine to cause blood disorders.”

Professor Nicole Soranzo, co-senior author from the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and Human Technopole, Italy, said: “There has been increasing realisation that human diseases have complex causes involving a combination of common and rare inherited genetic variants with different severity.

“We have previously shown that variation in blood cell parameters and function has complex genetic variability by highlighting thousands of genetic changes that affect different gene functions. Here, we show for the first time that common variants in these genes also affect blood cancers, independent of causative somatic mutations. This confirms a new important contribution of normal variability beyond complex disease, contributing to our understanding of myeloproliferative neoplasms and blood cancer more generally.”

Dr Jyoti Nangalia, co-senior author from the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute at the University of Cambridge, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “We have a good understanding of the genetic causes of myeloproliferative neoplasms. In fact, many of these genetic mutations are routine diagnostic tests in the clinic. However, these mutations can often be found in healthy individuals without the disease.

“Our study helps us understand how inherited DNA variation from person to person can interact with cancer-causing mutations to determine whether disease occurs in the first place, and how this can alter the type of any subsequent disease that emerges. Our hope is that this information can be incorporated into future disease prediction efforts.”  

This research was funded by Cancer Research UK and Wellcome.

Reference

J. Guo, K. Walter, P. M. Quiros, et al. ‘Inherited polygenic effects on common hematological traits influence clonal selection on JAK2V617F and the development of myeloproliferative neoplasms.’ Jan 2024,  Nature Genetics. DOI: 10.1038/s41588-023-01638-x

Adapted from a press release by the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Combining three different sources of genetic information has allowed researchers to further understand why only some people with a common mutation go on to develop rare blood cancer

Our hope is that this information can be incorporated into future disease prediction effortsJyoti NangaliaPhoto by Sangharsh Lohakare on UnsplashDNA


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YesLicence type: Attribution-Noncommerical

Significant gaps in COVID-19 vaccine uptake may have led to over 7,000 hospitalisations and deaths

Mon, 15/01/2024 - 23:30

The findings, published today in The Lancet, suggest that more than 7,000 hospitalisations and deaths might have been averted in summer 2022 if the UK had had better vaccine coverage.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and a new variant strain recently identified, this research provides a timely insight into vaccine uptake and hesitancy and could inform policy-makers.

The research relied on secure access to anonymised health data for everyone in all four nations of the UK, an advance which has only become possible during the pandemic.

Co-author Angela Wood, Professor of Health Data Science at the Victor Phillip Dahdaleh Heart & Lung Research Institute, University of Cambridge and Associate Director of the British Heart Foundation Data Science Centre said: “This is the first epidemiological study to use individual-level anonymised health data covering the entire UK population. We have created a detailed, UK-wide picture of who is under-vaccinated against COVID-19 and the associated risks of under-vaccination.

“These results can be used to help create health policy and public health interventions to improve vaccine uptake. This approach could be extended to many other areas of medicine with great potential for new discoveries in the understanding and treatment of disease.”

Early COVID-19 vaccine rollout began strongly in the UK, with over 90% of the population over the age of 12 vaccinated with at least one dose by January 2022. However, rates of subsequent booster doses across the UK were not fully understood until now.

Scientists from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – led by Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) and the University of Edinburgh – studied securely-held, routinely collected NHS data from everyone over five years of age during 1 June to 30 September 2022. All data was de-identified and available only to approved researchers.

Data from across the four countries was then pooled and harmonised, a feat that was not possible until now. People were grouped by vaccine status, with under-vaccination defined as not having had all doses of a vaccine for which that a person was eligible.

The findings reveal that the proportion of people who were under-vaccinated on 1 June 2022 ranged between one third and one half of the population – 45.7% for England, 49.8% for Northern Ireland, 34.2% for Scotland and 32.8% Wales.

Mathematical modelling indicated that 7,180 hospitalisations and deaths out of around 40,400 severe COVID-19 outcomes during four months in summer 2022 might have been averted, if the UK population was fully vaccinated.

Under-vaccination was related to significantly more hospitalisations and deaths across all age groups studied, with under-vaccinated people over 75 more than twice as likely to have a severe COVID-19 outcome than those who were fully protected.

The highest rates of under-vaccination were found in younger people, men, people in areas of higher deprivation, and people of non-white ethnicity.

Researchers say the study – the largest ever study carried out in the UK – also ushers in a new era for UK science by overcoming challenges in uniting NHS data that is gathered and stored in different ways between devolved nations.

Professor Cathie Sudlow, Chief Scientist at Health Data Research UK and Director of the British Heart Foundation (BHF) Data Science Centre, said: “The infrastructure now exists to make full use of the potential of routinely collected data in the NHS across the four nations of the UK. We believe that we could and should extend these approaches to many other areas of medicine, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes to search for better understanding, prevention and treatment of disease."

Professor Sir Aziz Sheikh, Director of the Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh, HDR UK Research Director and study co-lead, said: “Large-scale data studies have been critical to pandemic management, allowing scientists to make policy-relevant findings at speed. COVID-19 vaccines save lives. As new variants emerge, this study will help to pinpoint groups of our society and areas of the country where public health campaigns should be focused and tailored for those communities.”

Reference
HDR UK COALESCE Consortium. Undervaccination and severe COVID-19 outcomes: meta-analysis of national cohort studies in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Lancet; 16 Jan 2024; DOI: 0.1016/S0140-6736(23)02622-3

Adapted from a release from HDR-UK

Between a third and a half of the populations of the four UK nations had not had the recommended number of COVID vaccinations and boosters by summer 2022, according to the first research study to look at COVID-19 vaccine coverage of the entire UK population.

These results can be used to help create health policy and public health interventions to improve vaccine uptakeAngela WoodKoldoyChris (Getty Images)Girl being injected with COVID-19 vaccine


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Yes

Accelerating how new drugs are made with machine learning

Mon, 15/01/2024 - 10:05

Predicting how molecules will react is vital for the discovery and manufacture of new pharmaceuticals, but historically this has been a trial-and-error process, and the reactions often fail. To predict how molecules will react, chemists usually simulate electrons and atoms in simplified models, a process that is computationally expensive and often inaccurate.

Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a data-driven approach, inspired by genomics, where automated experiments are combined with machine learning to understand chemical reactivity, greatly speeding up the process. They’ve called their approach, which was validated on a dataset of more than 39,000 pharmaceutically relevant reactions, the chemical ‘reactome’.

Their results, reported in the journal Nature Chemistry, are the product of a collaboration between Cambridge and Pfizer.

“The reactome could change the way we think about organic chemistry,” said Dr Emma King-Smith from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, the paper’s first author. “A deeper understanding of the chemistry could enable us to make pharmaceuticals and so many other useful products much faster. But more fundamentally, the understanding we hope to generate will be beneficial to anyone who works with molecules.”

The reactome approach picks out relevant correlations between reactants, reagents, and performance of the reaction from the data, and points out gaps in the data itself. The data is generated from very fast, or high throughput, automated experiments.

“High throughput chemistry has been a game-changer, but we believed there was a way to uncover a deeper understanding of chemical reactions than what can be observed from the initial results of a high throughput experiment,” said King-Smith.

“Our approach uncovers the hidden relationships between reaction components and outcomes,” said Dr Alpha Lee, who led the research. “The dataset we trained the model on is massive – it will help bring the process of chemical discovery from trial-and-error to the age of big data.”

In a related paper, published in Nature Communications, the team developed a machine learning approach that enables chemists to introduce precise transformations to pre-specified regions of a molecule, enabling faster drug design.

The approach allows chemists to tweak complex molecules – like a last-minute design change – without having to make them from scratch. Making a molecule in the lab is typically a multi-step process, like building a house. If chemists want to vary the core of a molecule, the conventional way is to rebuild the molecule, like knocking the house down and rebuilding from scratch. However, core variations are important to medicine design.

A class of reactions, known as late-stage functionalisation reactions, attempts to directly introduce chemical transformations to the core, avoiding the need to start from scratch. However, it is challenging to make late-stage functionalisation selective and controlled – there are typically many regions of the molecules that can react, and it is difficult to predict the outcome.

“Late-stage functionalisations can yield unpredictable results and current methods of modelling, including our own expert intuition, isn't perfect,” said King-Smith. “A more predictive model would give us the opportunity for better screening.”

The researchers developed a machine learning model that predicts where a molecule would react, and how the site of reaction vary as a function of different reaction conditions. This enables chemists to find ways to precisely tweak the core of a molecule.

“We trained the model on a large body of spectroscopic data – effectively teaching the model general chemistry – before fine-tuning it to predict these intricate transformations,” said King-Smith. This approach allowed the team to overcome the limitation of low data: there are relatively few late-stage functionalisation reactions reported in the scientific literature. The team experimentally validated the model on a diverse set of drug-like molecules and was able to accurately predict the sites of reactivity under different conditions.

“The application of machine learning to chemistry is often throttled by the problem that the amount of data is small compared to the vastness of chemical space,” said Lee. “Our approach – designing models that learn from large datasets that are similar but not the same as the problem we are trying to solve – resolves this fundamental low-data challenge and could unlock advances beyond late-stage functionalisation.”  

The research was supported in part by Pfizer and the Royal Society.

References:
Emma King-Smith et al. ‘Predictive Minisci Late Stage Functionalization with Transfer Learning.’ Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-42145-1

Emma King-Smith et al. ‘Probing the Chemical "Reactome" with High Throughput Experimentation Data.’ Nature Chemistry (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41557-023-01393-w

Researchers have developed a platform that combines automated experiments with AI to predict how chemicals will react with one another, which could accelerate the design process for new drugs.

A deeper understanding of the chemistry could enable us to make pharmaceuticals and so many other useful products much faster. Emma King-SmithBlackJack3D via Getty ImagesDigital Molecular Structure Concept


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Yes

Feeling depressed linked to short-term increase in bodyweight among people with overweight or obesity

Wed, 10/01/2024 - 19:00

The study, published today in PLOS ONE, found that the increase was only seen among people with overweight or obesity, but found no link between generally having greater symptoms of depression and higher bodyweight.

Research has suggested a connection between weight and mental health – with each potentially influencing the other – but the relationship is complex and remains poorly understood, particularly in relation to how changes in an individual’s mental health influence their bodyweight over time.

To help answer this question, researchers at Cambridge’s Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit examined data from over 2,000 adults living in Cambridgeshire, UK, who had been recruited to the Fenland COVID-19 Study.

Participants completed digital questionnaires on mental wellbeing and bodyweight every month for up to nine months during the COVID-19 pandemic (August 2020 – April 2021) using a mobile app developed by Huma Therapeutics Limited.

Questions assessed an individual’s symptoms of depression, anxiety and perceived stress. A higher score indicated greater severity, with the maximum possible scores being 24 for depression, 21 for anxiety and 40 for stress. The team then used statistical modelling to explore whether having poorer mental wellbeing than usual was related to changes in bodyweight one month later.

The researchers found that for every increment increase in an individual’s usual score for depressive symptoms, their subsequent weight one month later increased by 45g. This may seem small but would mean, for example, that in an individual whose depressive symptoms score rose from five to 10 (equal to an increase from ‘mild’ to ‘moderate’ depressive symptoms) it would relate to an average weight gain of 225g (0.225kg).

This effect was only observed in those individuals with overweight (defined as BMI 25-29.9kg/m2) or with obesity (BMI of over 30kg/m2). Individuals with overweight had on average an increase of 52g for each increment point increase from their usual depressive symptoms score and for those with obesity the comparable weight gain was 71g. The effect was not seen in those individuals with a healthy weight.

First author Dr Julia Mueller from the MRC Epidemiology Unit said: “Overall, this suggests that individuals with overweight or obesity are more vulnerable to weight gain in response to feeling more depressed. Although the weight gain was relatively small, even small weight changes occurring over short periods of time can lead to larger weight changes in the long-term, particularly among those with overweight and obesity.

“People with a high BMI are already at greater risk from other health conditions, so this could potentially lead to a further deterioration in their health. Monitoring and addressing depressive symptoms in individuals with overweight or obesity could help prevent further weight gain and be beneficial to both their mental and physical health.”

The researchers found no evidence that perceived stress or anxiety were related to changes in weight.

Senior author Dr Kirsten Rennie from the MRC Epidemiology Unit said: “Apps on our phones make it possible for people to answer short questions at home more frequently and over extended periods of time, which provides much more information about their wellbeing. This technology could help us understand how changes in mental health influence behaviour among people with overweight or obesity and offer ways to develop timely interventions when needed.”

Although previous studies have suggested that poor mental health is both a cause and consequence of obesity, the research team found no evidence that weight predicted subsequent symptoms of depression.

The research was supported by the Medical Research Council.

Reference
Mueller, J et al. The relationship of within-individual and between-individual variation in mental health with bodyweight: An exploratory longitudinal study. PLOS ONE; 10 Jan 2024; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0295117

Increases in symptoms of depression are associated with a subsequent increase in bodyweight when measured one month later, new research from the University of Cambridge has found.

i yunmaiPerson standing on white digital bathroom scale


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Mysterious missing component in the clouds of Venus revealed

Tue, 09/01/2024 - 10:05

What are the clouds of Venus made of? Scientists know they are mainly made of sulfuric acid droplets, with some water, chlorine, and iron. Their concentrations vary with height in the thick and hostile Venusian atmosphere. But until now they have been unable to identify the missing component that would explain the clouds’ patches and streaks, only visible in the UV range.

In a study published in Science Advances, researchers from the University of Cambridge synthesised iron-bearing sulfate minerals that are stable under the harsh chemical conditions in the Venusian clouds. Spectroscopic analysis revealed that a combination of two minerals, rhomboclase and acid ferric sulfate, can explain the mysterious UV absorption feature on our neighbouring planet.

“The only available data for the composition of the clouds were collected by probes and revealed strange properties of the clouds that so far we have been unable to fully explain,” said Paul Rimmer from the Cavendish Laboratory and co-author of the study. “In particular, when examined under UV light, the Venusian clouds featured a specific UV absorption pattern. What elements, compounds, or minerals are responsible for such observation?”

Formulated on the basis of Venusian atmospheric chemistry, the team synthesised several iron-bearing sulfate minerals in an aqueous geochemistry laboratory in the Department of Earth Sciences. By suspending the synthesised materials in varying concentrations of sulfuric acid and monitor the chemical and mineralogical changes, the team narrowed down the candidate minerals to rhomboclase and acid ferric sulfate, of which the spectroscopic features were examined under light sources specifically designed to mimic the spectrum of solar flares (Rimmer’s FlareLab; Cavendish Laboratory).

Researchers from Harvard University provided measurements of the UV absorbance patterns of ferric iron under extreme acidic conditions, in an attempt to mimic the even more extreme Venusian clouds. The scientists are part of the newly-established Origins Federation, which promotes such collaborative projects.

“The patterns and level of absorption shown by the combination of these two mineral phases are consistent with the dark UV-patches observed in Venusian clouds,” said co-author Clancy Zhijian Jiang, from the Department of Earth Sciences, Cambridge. “These targeted experiments revealed the intricate chemical network within the atmosphere, and shed light on the elemental cycling on the Venusian surface.”

“Venus is our nearest neighbour, but it remains a mystery,” said Rimmer. “We will have a chance to learn much more about this planet in the coming years with future NASA and ESA missions set to explore its atmosphere, clouds and surface. This study prepares the grounds for these future explorations.”

The research was supported by the Simons Foundation, and the Origins Federation.

Reference:
Clancy Zhijian Jiang et al., ‘Iron-sulfur chemistry can explain the ultraviolet absorber in the clouds of Venus.’ Science Advances (2024). DOI:10.1126/sciadv.adg8826

Researchers may have identified the missing component in the chemistry of the Venusian clouds that would explain their colour and 'splotchiness' in the UV range, solving a longstanding mystery.

FreelanceImages/Universal Images Group/Science Photo Library via Getty ImagesSunrise over Venus


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Yes

New trial of 'pill-on-a-thread' brings screening for oesophageal cancer closer

Tue, 09/01/2024 - 08:53

The capsule sponge, known as the pill-on-a-thread, is a quick and simple test for Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition that can be a precursor to cancer. Heartburn is a common symptom of Barrett’s oesophagus, a changing of cells in the food pipe.  

The BEST4 trial launched at Addenbrooke’s Hospital today is the final step to see if the capsule sponge can prevent oesophageal cancer when used to screen or monitor those most at risk of the disease. If so, it could become a national screening programme across the NHS, in the same way mammograms are used to screen for breast cancer.

The first stage of the trial, BEST4 Surveillance, is for people already diagnosed with Barrett’s oesophagus. It will look at whether the capsule sponge test could replace endoscopies to monitor their condition. Participants will receive both examinations during the trial with results used to assess their risk of developing oesophageal cancer. 

The second stage of the trial, BEST4 Screening, opens in the summer and will recruit 120,000 people aged over 55 on long-term treatment for heartburn.

The multi-million-pound trial is jointly funded by Cancer Research UK and the National Institute for Health and Care Research. It builds on decades of research led by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald from the University of Cambridge. She and a team of scientists, clinicians and nurses at the Early Cancer Institute, University of Cambridge and Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, invented and refined the capsule sponge test.

Professor Fitzgerald said: “The capsule sponge, a quick and simple test for Barrett’s oesophagus, could halve the number of deaths from oesophageal cancer every year. Cases of oesophageal cancer have increased six fold since the 1990s.  On average only 12% of patients live more than five years after diagnosis. Most don’t realise there’s a problem until they have trouble swallowing. By then it is too late.

“The first phase of the trial looks at whether the capsule sponge can be used as a cancer early warning system for patients diagnosed with Barrett’s. Using the capsule sponge and a new set of lab tests, we will be monitoring patients to see if we can prevent more cases of cancer.”

Tim Cowper, 49, a brewer from Cambridge, has had acid reflux, or heartburn, every night since he was 16. A routine health check while he was at university resulted in the shock diagnosis of Barrett’s oesophagus. After his diagnosis, he has been monitored ever since.

Tim said: “I was alarmed when I was told that having Barrett’s meant having pre-cancerous cells in my gullet. Cancer is never a nice word to hear, especially when you are so young, but luckily, I’ve had my condition monitored.

“Since my diagnosis, I’ve been going for an endoscopy at least once every three years to monitor my oesophagus. It is not pleasant at all. Each time I have a thick tube pushed down through my mouth and I can feel every single one of the biopsies taken by the camera. Swallowing a capsule sponge is a much better experience and I now get the test before my regular endoscopy appointment.”

Barrett’s oesophagus is currently identified via an endoscopy and a biopsy in hospital following a GP referral. It is time-consuming, unpleasant, and quite invasive for patients, as well as being expensive for the healthcare system.

The capsule sponge is a small, easy to swallow capsule on a thread, which contains a sponge. The patient swallows the capsule which dissolves in the stomach and the sponge expands to the size of a 50p coin.

The sponge is carefully pulled back up using the string, collecting cells for laboratory testing. The test takes just 10 minutes and can be done in a GP surgery.

Cancer Research UK and others have funded several successful clinical trials to demonstrate that the test is safe, accurate and can detect 10 times more cases of Barrett’s oesophagus than standard practice.

The test is faster and cheaper than endoscopy, which is currently used to diagnose and monitor Barrett’s oesophagus and oesophageal cancer. It has been piloted in health services in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland for patients who are currently on waiting lists for endoscopy because they have long-term heartburn or diagnosed with Barrett’s oesophagus.

Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Cancer Research UK, Dr Iain Foulkes, said: “Around 59% of all oesophageal cancer cases are preventable. Yet endoscopy, the gold standard for diagnosing and treating this cancer, is labour-intensive. We need better tools and tests to monitor people most at risk.

“Backed by funding from Cancer Research UK, the capsule sponge has become one of the most exciting early detection tools to emerge in recent years. It’s a remarkable invention by Professor Fitzgerald and her team, and previous trials have shown how powerful it can be in identifying cancer earlier.

“There are 9,200 people diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in the UK every year and the capsule sponge will mean they can benefit from kinder treatment options, if their cancer is caught at a much earlier stage.”

The future Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital will bring together clinical and research expertise, including Professor Fitzgerald’s work, under one roof.  It will enable the development and discovery of more non-invasive devices like the capsule sponge, to detect cancer earlier, and save more lives.

The BEST4 Surveillance Trial is led from Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Cambridge, with trial design, coordination and analysis of results by the Cancer Research UK Cancer Prevention Trials Unit at Queen Mary University of London.

Further information about the BEST4 trial.

Adapted from a press release from Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

A man from Cambridge is the first to join the surveillance part of a clinical trial that could see routine screening for oesophageal cancer introduced into the NHS, potentially halving deaths from this cancer every year.

The capsule sponge, a quick and simple test for Barrett’s oesophagus, could halve the number of deaths from oesophageal cancer every yearRebecca Fitzgerald


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Yes

Pioneering transplant surgeon Sir Roy Calne dies aged 93

Mon, 08/01/2024 - 09:26

Professor Calne pursued a career as a transplant surgeon after his experience as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in the 1950s, when he was told there was nothing that could be done for a man dying of kidney failure.

He was appointed to the position of Professor of Surgery at the University of Cambridge in 1965, where he remained until 1998. He established the kidney transplant programme at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, now part of Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH) NHS Foundation Trust.

On 2 May 1968, Professor Calne performed the first successful liver transplant in Europe. Almost two decades later, in 1986, he would go on to carry out the world’s first liver, heart and lung transplant together with Professor John Wallwork at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge.

Professor Calne was a pioneer in immunosuppression – the use of drugs to dampen the response of the immune system in order to prevent the body from rejecting transplanted organs, a potentially fatal complication. This would go on to revolutionise transplantation. He was among the first to introduce the immunosuppressant drug cyclosporin into routine clinical care, for which he shared the prestigious Lasker Award in 2012.

Despite retiring from the Chair of Surgery at the University of Cambridge in 1998, he continued to perform kidney transplants until well into his seventies, and remained active in research into his eighties.

Professor Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Professor Calne was a true pioneer, driven by the desire to help his patients. His work here in Cambridge as a scientist and clinician has saved many thousands of lives and continues to have a major impact worldwide. We are saddened by his loss and pay tribute to his extraordinary achievements.”

Patrick Maxwell, Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Cambridge, added: “Sir Roy was a brilliant man who made a series of major breakthroughs in transplant surgery. His work has transformed the lives of countless patients around the world.”

Professor Calne was a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, from 1965-1998. Following his retirement, he was made an Honorary Fellow. In 2018, he attended celebrations at the College to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his pioneering liver transplant surgery, where he was able to meet patients and colleagues from a career spanning six decades. To mark the anniversary, he helped launch a £250,000 appeal by Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust to trial and run a new perfusion machine, which would allow more donated organs to be rendered suitable for transplantation. In 2021, the Addenbrooke’s Transplant Unit was named after him.

Dr Mike More, Chair of CUH, said: “Sir Roy leaves behind a truly amazing legacy and many of our staff will remember him with fondness for his vision and genuine kindness. We will all miss him very much.”

Professor Sir Roy Calne, the pioneering transplant surgeon who carried out the first liver transplant in the UK during his time at Cambridge, has died aged 93.

Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation TrustProfessor Sir Roy Calne


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Yes

Reducing inequality is essential in tackling climate crisis, researchers argue

Tue, 02/01/2024 - 10:32

In a report just published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers argue that tackling inequality is vital in moving the world towards Net-Zero – because inequality constrains who can feasibly adopt low-carbon behaviours.

They say that changes are needed across society if we are to mitigate climate change effectively. Although wealthy people have very large carbon footprints, they often have the means to reduce their carbon footprint more easily than those on lower incomes.

The researchers say there is lack of political recognition of the barriers that can make it difficult for people to change to more climate-friendly behaviours.

They suggest that policymakers provide equal opportunities for low-carbon behaviours across all income brackets of society.

The report defines inequality in various ways: in terms of wealth and income, political influence, free time, and access to low-carbon options such as public transport and housing insulation subsidies.

“It’s increasingly acknowledged that there’s inequality in terms of who causes climate change and who suffers the consequences, but there’s far less attention being paid to the effect of inequality in changing behaviours to reduce carbon emissions,” said Dr Charlotte Kukowski, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Cambridge Departments of Psychology and Zoology, and first author of the report.

She added: “People on lower incomes can be more restricted in the things they can do to help reduce their carbon footprint, in terms of the cost and time associated with doing things differently.”

The researchers found that deep-rooted inequalities can restrict people’s capacity to switch to lower-carbon behaviours in many ways. For example:

Insulating a house in the UK can be costly, and government subsidies are generally only available for homeowners; renters have little control over the houses they live in.

The UK has large numbers of old, badly insulated houses that require more energy to heat than new-build homes. The researchers call for appropriate government schemes that make it more feasible for people in lower income groups to reduce the carbon emissions of their home.

Cooking more meat-free meals: plant-based meat alternatives currently tend to be less affordable than the animal products they are trying to replace.

Eating more plant-based foods instead of meat and animal-derived products is one of the most effective changes an individual can make in reducing their carbon footprint.

Buying an electric car or an electric bike is a substantial upfront cost, and people who aren’t in permanent employment often can’t benefit from tax breaks or financing available through employer schemes.

Other low-carbon transport options - such as using public transport instead of a private car - are made less feasible for many due to poor services, particularly in rural areas.

Sometimes the lower-carbon options are more expensive - and this makes them less accessible to people on lower incomes.

“If you have more money you're likely to cause more carbon emissions, but you're also more likely to have greater ability to change the things you do and reduce those emissions,” said Dr Emma Garnett, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and second author of the report.

She added: “Interventions targeting high-emitting individuals are urgently needed, but also many areas where there are lower-carbon choices - like food and transport - need everyone to be involved.”

The researchers say that campaigns to encourage people to switch to lower-carbon behaviours have tended to focus on providing information. While this is important in helping people understand the issues, there can still be many barriers to making changes.

They suggest a range of policy interventions, such as urban planning to include bus and bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly routes, progressive taxation rates on wealth and income, and employer-subsidised low-carbon meal options.

The research was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and Wellcome.

Reference: Kukowski, C.A. & Garnett, E.E.: ‘Tackling Inequality is Essential for Behaviour Change for Net Zero.’ Nature Climate Change, December 2023. DOI: 10.1038/s41558-023-01900-4

Promoting climate-friendly behaviours will be more successful in societies where everyone has the capacity: financially, physically, and timewise, to make changes.

People on lower incomes can be more restricted in the things they can do to help reduce their carbon footprint.Charlotte KukowskiRgStudio / GettyBusinesswoman commuting on electric bike


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Cambridge achievers recognised in 2024 New Year Honours list

Sat, 30/12/2023 - 09:46

Professor Dame Carol Black DBE is awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) for public service. Black was Principal of Newnham College from 2012-2019 and formerly a Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

She said: “I am absolutely delighted to have been made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire. This award comes almost 20 years after I received a DBE for services to medicine and recognises the progress being made to tackle some of the most entrenched and interrelated problems in society – poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and drug dependency. My heartfelt thanks go to everyone who has helped and supported me, and to those individuals doing great work on the frontline to change culture and practice.”

Composer Judith Weir CBE, Honorary Fellow and alumna of King’s College, Cambridge, is also awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (GBE), for services to music. Weir is Master of the King’s Music, having been appointed by Queen Elizabeth II in 2014, and has twice written a specially-commissioned carol for the college’s A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

GBE is the highest rank in the Order, and rarely awarded, to recognise the most exceptional and sustained service to the UK. Since its creation in 1917, fewer than 80 women have been awarded a GBE.

Organist, conductor and broadcaster Anna Lapwood, Janeway Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, is awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to music. Lapwood reaches a huge audience through her concerts and via social media with over 1 million followers across all platforms. Her passion for the organ is matched by her mission to support girls and women in music.

She said: “When you work as a musician, so much of what you do isn't quantifiable or finite - your work on a certain piece is never 'finished', and your playing is always changing and developing. Receiving this award feels like something concrete - a deeply significant moment in my musical journey.” 

Gerard Grech, former CEO and Founder of Tech Nation, is awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to the technology sector. He joined Cambridge Enterprise this year to lead a new flagship ‘Founders Initiative’ that will support University founders to make an even greater impact on the world in the technology and software sectors.

Grech said: “I’m honoured to have been recognised for my contribution to the growing success of the UK’s tech and startup sector which is increasingly creating globally important tech and science-backed companies, from my time at Tech Nation. This honour is also recognition of the founders, ecosystem experts, investors, policy makers, and my colleagues who generously shared their knowledge and insights to support the UK’s most ambitious tech entrepreneurs. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to them all for all their hard work.”

Dr Sabesan Sithamparanathan, Enterprise Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, and former student in the University’s Department of Engineering, is awarded Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to innovation technology. As Founder & President of PervasID he pioneered the world’s most accurate battery-free, real-time location tracking technology which is now in use by several NHS trusts, the largest aircraft manufacturers, airlines and blue-chip retailers.

He said: “I am absolutely delighted; this is a great honour and testament to the hard work and innovation of the entire team at PervasID. Our products offer a national and international benefit and we will continue to pioneer technology that has a wider value to society as a whole.”

Professor Ann Prentice OBE, Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit, is awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to British and Global Public Health Nutrition. A former director of the MRC Elsie Widdowson Laboratory (previously MRC Human Nutrition Research) at Cambridge, and programme leader of the MRC Nutrition and Bone Health Research Group at Cambridge, she was also head of the calcium, vitamin D and bone health research team at MRC Unit The Gambia. Her research is focused on life-course nutritional requirements for population health, with an emphasis on calcium and vitamin D, and encompasses the nutritional problems of both affluent and resource-limited societies.

She said: “I am delighted to receive this honour on behalf of all the people, in this country and worldwide, who have worked with me to improve our understanding of the links between nutrition and health.”

Dr Gillian Tett, Provost at Kings College, Cambridge, is awarded Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to Economic Journalism. Tett, a former student at the University, is currently Chairman of the US Editorial Board and America Editor-at-Large of the Financial Times.  She became the 45th Provost at King’s College in October 2023, and is renowned for her warnings ahead of the financial crisis of 2008.

Tett said: “I am deeply honoured to receive an OBE - and hope this helps to champion the importance of British intellectual capital, both in journalism and higher education. Thank you to everyone who has helped me in my career!”

Joan Winterkorn is awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to heritage and culture. She is an expert on archives and literary and historical manuscripts, and was formerly in the antiquarian and rare book trade. In Cambridge she played a vital role in enabling the Churchill Archive Centre to acquire the papers of Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Thatcher and the University Library to gain those of Siegfried Sassoon and Dame Margaret Drabble. In 2019 she received the honorary degree of Master of Arts from the University.

Academics and staff associated with the University of Cambridge feature in the 2024 list, which recognises the achievements and service of people across the UK, from all walks of life.

Senate house


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Yes

University academics ranked among best in the world

Thu, 21/12/2023 - 10:57

The Research.com Best Female Scientists in the World 2023 rankings are based on an analysis of more than 166,000 profiles of scientists across the globe. Position in the ranking is according to a scientist’s total ‘H-index’ - rate of the publications made within a given area of research as well as awards and recognitions. Only the top 1000 scholars with the highest H-index are featured in the ranking.

Kay-Tee Khaw, an Emeritus Professor in Gerontology and a Gonville & Caius Fellow, is placed fifth worldwide and tops the list for Europe. Professor Khaw, who was named a CBE in 2003 for Services to Medicine, published a study on how modest differences in lifestyle are associated with better life expectancy which informed the UK Government’s ‘Small changes, big difference’ campaign in 2006.

Also high in the rankings is Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology in the Department of Psychiatry and a Fellow of Clare Hall, who is placed sixth in the UK. Professor Sahakian’s recent research includes a study showing the benefits to mental health and cognitive performance of reading for pleasure at an early age, and seven healthy lifestyle factors that reduce the risk of depression.

Joining Professor Khaw and Professor Sahakian in the top 10 in the UK is Carol Brayne, Professor of Public Health Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Fellow of Darwin. Awarded a CBE in 2017 for Services to Public Health Medicine, Professor Brayne has pioneered the study of dementia in populations.

Nine other University of Cambridge scientists also make the rankings:

Professor Gillian Murphy (Department of Oncology), an international leader in the field of metalloproteinases, who has defined their roles in arthritis and cancer.

Professor Claudia Langenberg (MRC Epidemiology Unit), a public health specialist combining her expertise with research focused on molecular epidemiology.

Professor Nita Forouhi (MRC Epidemiology Unit), a physician scientist, MRC Investigator and Programme Leader in Nutritional Epidemiology, whose research on the link between diet, nutrition and chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes has informed health policy.

Professor Alison Dunning (Centre for Cancer Genetic Epidemiology, Department of Oncology), a genetic epidemiologist working on the risk of breast and other hormonal cancers.

Professor Karalyn Patterson (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge Centre for Frontotemporal Dementia and Related Disorders), a Fellow of Darwin College, who specialises in what we can learn about the organisation and neural representation of language and memory from the study of neurological patients suffering from the onset of brain disease or damage in adulthood.

Professor Dame Clare Grey (Department of Chemistry), a materials chemist whose work has paved the way for less expensive, longer-lasting batteries and helped improve storage systems for renewable energy, she is Chief Scientist and co-founder of Nyobolt, a company that is developing ultrafast-charging batteries for electric vehicles.

Professor Sharon Peacock (Department of Medicine), who has built her scientific expertise around pathogen genomics, antimicrobial resistance, and a range of tropical diseases, was the founding director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium which informed the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Professor Maria Grazia Spillantini (Department of Clinical Neurosciences) has been researching the cause of dementia for many years and was the first to identify the specific protein deposit found in Parkinson’s disease.

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau (Department of Public Health and Primary Care and Honorary Fellow of Christ’s College), a behavioural scientist, focuses on the development and evaluation of interventions to change behaviour (principally food, tobacco and alcohol consumption) to improve population health and reduce health inequalities, with a particular focus on targeting non-conscious processes.

Speaking on publication of this year’s rankings, Imed Bouchrika, Co-Founder of Research.com and Chief Data Scientist, said: “The purpose of this online ranking of the world's leading female scientists is to recognize the efforts of every female scientist who has made the courageous decision to pursue opportunities despite barriers.

“Their unwavering determination in the face of difficulties serves as a source of motivation for all young women and girls who pursue careers in science.”

Twelve academics from the University of Cambridge have been ranked among the top female scientists in the world - with one claiming the top spot for Europe.

Gonville & Caius CollegeProfessor Kay-Tee Khaw who has been named as the top female scientist in Europe by Research.com


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YesRelated Links: Research.com Best Female Scientists in the World 2023 RankingResearch.com Best Female Scientists in United Kingdom 2023 Ranking

Murder most foul at Cambridge University Library

Tue, 19/12/2023 - 13:05

2024 brings the UL crime novels, fascinating new research projects, and a major exhibition on our Islamic manuscripts

2024 brings the UL crime novels, fascinating new research projects, and a major exhibition on our Islamic manuscripts


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Yes

Cambridge Pro-Vice-Chancellor appointed Executive Chair of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

Tue, 19/12/2023 - 11:01

The Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan, appointed Professor Ferguson-Smith to the post.

Michelle Donelan said: "Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith’s appointment is great news for UK bioscience, which is delivering transformative discoveries that will benefit our country and beyond – from creating new life-saving vaccines to developing sustainable food production.

"The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is a key funder and driving force of this world-leading sector and Professor Ferguson-Smith’s experience will be a major asset in building on that work to support a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future."

Professor Ferguson-Smith, a developmental geneticist and epigeneticist, and currently Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics at the University, is a member of the BBSRC Council, an elected member of EMBO, a Fellow of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. 

A Fellow of Darwin College, she was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and International Partnerships from January 2022, having been Acting PVC for Research since January 2021, following the death of Chris Abell in October 2020. Professor Ferguson-Smith was this year made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Biomedical Research.

UKRI Chief Executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said: “I am delighted by the appointment of Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith as BBSRC’s new Executive Chair. Professor Ferguson-Smith is an inspiring leader who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the role. 

“I am deeply grateful to Professor Guy Poppy for his excellent service as BBSRC’s interim Executive Chair. His leadership of BBSRC and on the UKRI Executive Committee has been greatly appreciated.” 

Professor Ferguson-Smith said: “It’s a privilege to be chosen for such an important role, and to be able to champion the BBSRC’s research strategy in alignment with national and global challenges. I’ve been supported by and been working within the BBSRC for a number of years now in a range of contexts, so I’m delighted I will be leading such a connected and effective community, with such a strong legacy created by the previous Executive Chair.

“I’m looking forward to working within UKRI to support talent development and end-to-end impactful research, from discovery to application. I will be connecting with ministers and other partners to drive an ambitious national agenda in research innovation.”

Professor Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cambridge, said: “I am thrilled that Anne has been appointed as Executive Chair of the BBSRC. The appointment underscores what those of us who have worked with her know so well – her personal experience in excellent research, her deep knowledge of the wider research sector, and her ability to bring together colleagues across many fields in pursuit of an institution’s strategic needs. She will be a boon to the BBSRC, and to the UK’s research and innovation landscape more widely, and we are all immensely proud of her.” 

Professor Ferguson-Smith will take up post as BBSRC’s Executive Chair on 1 July 2024.

The post of BBSRC Executive Chair is subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Select Committee. The committee has reviewed details provided by Professor Ferguson-Smith and decided they do not require a pre-appointment hearing for this appointment.

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and International Partnerships at the University of Cambridge, has been appointed Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

 

It’s a privilege to be chosen for such an important role, and to be able to champion the BBSRC’s research strategy in alignment with national and global challenges. Professor Anne Ferguson-SmithProfessor Anne Ferguson-SmithProfessor Anne Ferguson-Smith


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Yes

Disadvantaged children’s school struggles not about character, attitude or lack of ‘growth mindset’, study suggests

Tue, 19/12/2023 - 07:52

The relative underperformance of disadvantaged students at school has little do with them lacking the ‘character’, attitude, or mindset of their wealthier peers, despite widespread claims to the contrary, new research indicates.

The study, which analysed data from more than 240,000 15-year-olds across 74 countries, challenges the view often invoked by politicians and educators that cultivating self-belief or ‘growth mindsets’ can reduce class-based learning gaps. Researchers found that no more than 9% of the substantial achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students can be attributed to differences in these social and emotional characteristics.

In almost every country in the world, wealth and socioeconomic status significantly predicts children’s academic success. The new study, by academics from the Universities of Cambridge, Zürich and Tübingen, does not dispute that social and emotional learning positively shapes academic outcomes, but it does question whether it can substantially reduce the academic achievement gap between children from rich and poor families.

This contradicts a widespread conviction among education policymakers. One influential policy paper in the US, for example, has identified “promoting social-emotional and character development” as a key strategy for narrowing the achievement gap. Similarly, a UK Cabinet Office survey in 2015 concluded that disadvantaged and vulnerable children would benefit most from social and emotional learning, and that neglecting this would “perpetuate the cycle of advantage or disadvantage across generations”.

In some countries, social and emotional learning is also big business. The industry was valued at $1.5 billion in the US in 2020, and projected to reach $3.9 billion by 2025. Many of these providers also suggest that their services can help to narrow the achievement gap.

The lead author of the new study, Dr Rob Gruijters, from the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge, said: “Educational inequality cannot be solved through social and emotional learning. The idea that children can overcome structural disadvantage by cultivating a growth mindset and a positive work ethic overlooks the real constraints many disadvantaged students face, and risks blaming them for their own misfortune.”

Nicolas Hübner, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Education at the University of Tübingen and a co-author, said: “Developing social and emotional skills is hugely valuable for children, but the evidence suggests it has little to do with why low income students are more likely to struggle academically. According to our results, it is not a magic bullet for tackling the socioeconomic achievement gap.”

The study used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), covering 248,375 high school students in 74 countries. Researchers analysed both the science test scores, and school-relevant socio-emotional skills, of the most and least advantaged quartile (25%) of students in each country.

Across all 74 countries, the socioeconomic attainment gap was very large. The average difference in PISA science test results between the top and bottom 25% of students sorted by socioeconomic status was 70.5 points; equivalent to almost three years of schooling.

The academic benefits that disadvantaged children derive from socio-emotional skills, however, were found to be relatively similar to those gained by advantaged children. This runs counter to the widely held assumption that focusing on these skills is particularly important and beneficial for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, which underpins many social and emotional learning programmes.

While children from wealthier backgrounds were found to have somewhat higher levels of socio-emotional skills on average, the impact of these discrepancies on the overall achievement gap was modest. The researchers calculated that if, hypothetically, disadvantaged children had the same social and emotional skills as wealthier children and their academic effects were consistent, the learning gap between them would only reduce by no more than 9%.

Strikingly, these findings proved fairly consistent across countries and for different academic subjects (reading, maths and science).

One of the reasons why socio-emotional skills are not a major driver of achievement inequality is that, despite the differences between them, both advantaged and disadvantaged children were found to have reasonably high levels of these skills overall. For example, during the PISA psychometric assessment, 84% of disadvantaged children, and 90% from the advantaged quartile, agreed with the statement “I feel proud that I have accomplished things”.

The researchers add that the 9% of the achievement gap that can be attributed to the social and emotional skills measured by PISA is likely to be an overestimation, because of potential reverse causality in the relationship with academic achievement. Co-author Isabel Raabe, a researcher in the Department of Sociology, University of Zürich, said: “Students who lack the right mindset may perform less well at school, but that may be because their academic performance has eroded their self-belief; not the other way round.”

The authors argue that policies to reduce educational disadvantages should focus on the structural reasons that cause some students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to underperform. These include differences in the quality, resourcing and funding of the schools they attend; the absence in many countries of high-quality preschool options; and a lack of extracurricular resources and out-of-school opportunities compared with their wealthier peers.

The findings are published in Sociology of Education.

A global study of 240,000 students challenges the widespread policy conviction that bridging the academic gap between rich and poor students hinges on improving the latter’s work ethic, mindset and socio-emotional skills.

Educational inequality cannot be solved through social and emotional learningRob Gruijters


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Yes

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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