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Assisted dying and a new treatment for Peyronie’s disease form part of a series of health events at Cambridge Festival 2023

Should assisted dying be legalised? Could erectile dysfunction caused by fibrosis (Peyronie’s disease) be cured by a new drug combination? What can dogs teach us about obesity? Why do young people eat what they do?

These questions are part of a wide-ranging series of events at this year’s Cambridge Festival, which begins next month (17 March – 2 April). Over 100 events, including talks, demonstrations and tours, showcase the pioneering health research from the University of Cambridge and its partners, including several landmark cancer research studies.

Assisted dying, a topic that continues to be controversial, is discussed in THE BARON DE LANCEY LECTURE 2023 – ASSISTED DYING: SLIPPERY SLOPES AND UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES (16 March). Professor Emily Jackson (London School of Economics) discusses the practical pitfalls in trying to legislate to legalise assisted dying.

She said: “Twenty years ago, there were few countries in which assisted dying was lawful. Now assisted dying legislation has been passed in multiple US and Australian states, in New Zealand, Canada, Spain, Portugal… Indeed increasingly, the UK’s absolute prohibition of assisted dying is starting to look like an outlier. If other jurisdictions are capable of devising laws to regulate access to assisted dying, why would this be impossible in the UK?

“There is also now a considerable body of evidence about how legalised assisted dying works in practice, so it is possible to understand more about its impact upon patients, doctors and society. As the Health and Social Care Select Committee launches its inquiry into assisted dying, is it time to confine slippery slope arguments against legalisation to history?”

It has been estimated that 42% of deaths in the world are due to some kind of fibrotic disease. Despite efforts over the past 50 years, there is still no cure. During the pandemic, interest in fibrotic disease increased because COVID-19 infections can cause some patients to develop it in the lungs, hearts and kidneys. In FIGHTING FIBROSIS (1 April), Professor Selim Cellek, a biomedical researcher at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), discusses new research including the discovery of a drug combination for Peyronie’s disease (PD); a fibrotic condition that affects the penis and can cause penile curvature and erectile dysfunction. The Fibrosis Research Group at ARU have demonstrated that a combination of two drugs – an active ingredient of Viagra and selective oestrogen receptor modulators – were able to prevent fibrosis in PD. In a recent clinical study, this new combination has been shown to slow or halt the progression of fibrosis in men with early PD.

An ongoing research project is also discussed during LESSONS ON OBESITY FROM MAN'S BEST FRIEND (28 March). Dr Eleanor Raffan, a vet and geneticist at the Department of Physiology, Development & Neuroscience, talks about how genetics make some individuals (dog and human) prone to obesity, and how environmental factors have an influence on weight gain.

The latest research and a brand new pilot study that looks at what young people eat is discussed in GROWING UP IN A CHANGING ENVIRONMENT: WHAT REALLY INFLUENCES WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE EAT? (29 March). Dr Eleanor Winpenny, Dr Tiago Canelas and Mr Struan Tait from the MRC Epidemiology Unit present evidence from recent research in the UK and abroad, investigating how people’s diet changes as they go through adolescence and early adulthood, and the different lifestyle changes that appear to drive changes in diet.

Another brand new, first of its kind pilot study is discussed in FAIR HEALTH: A STUDY INTO THE HEALTH AND WELLBEING NEEDS OF TRAVELLING SHOWMEN (22 March). Professor Margaret Greenfields, Dr David Smith and Sophie Coker from Anglia Ruskin University, who are working in collaboration with Sheldon Chadwick, Chair of the Showmen’s Mental Health Awareness Charity, discuss the findings of their unique research project, which explores the health needs of the showmen (fairground) community, a population that is little researched and often overlooked.

Professor Greenfields said: “Our research has found that the health and wellbeing of Travelling Showmen is complex, and little understood by most health professionals who often conflate diverse travelling groups. Whilst a high percentage of our respondents have reported that members of their community are particularly prone to arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression; we have witnessed an incredible sense of resilience rooted in shared community values of inter-generational care and solidarity.”

Other health-related events revealing new research from the University of Cambridge include:

HOW TO MAKE A HEART VALVE PROSTHESIS (18 March). Researchers from the Structured Materials research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology present possible future solutions for heart valve replacement, such as polymeric heart valves.

METAL–ORGANIC FRAMEWORKS FOR RARE CANCER THERAPY (18 March). Researchers from Professor David Fairen Jimenez group at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology show how they are working with metal–organic frameworks (MOFs) for rare cancer therapy. MOFs are a type of sponge-like nanoparticle that act as tiny delivery vehicles to carry chemotherapy drugs into cells in the body. The talk includes a description of some new experimental studies to improve the treatment of malignant pleural mesothelioma, an incurable cancer with a survival time of only one year after diagnosis.

SHOWCASING ONE HEALTH RESEARCH AT THE VET SCHOOL (18 March). Revealing the breadth of biomedical research that is taking place at the Department of Veterinary Medicine. Topics covered include the microbiome in humans and animals; tracking antibiotic resistance in wild and domestic animals using genomics and computational tools; and new frontiers in vaccine development.  

HOW DO WE DELIVER DRUGS TO THE BRAIN? (18 March). Many of the drugs that could be used to treat cancers in the brain often fail because the brain has a protective layer called the blood brain barrier that prevents drugs reaching the site of the tumours. Researchers from the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration in Hard-to-Treat Cancers are aiming to overcome this issue by designing a new device to deliver these drugs directly to the point of the tumour. As any new device is designed and built it is of utmost importance to understand how well it works and how much drug it delivers. Dr Niamh Willis-Fox from the Institute for Manufacturing examines the team’s recently published work on the design of a new tool that does just that.

Health Data Research (HDR) is the UK’s national institute for health data science. It aims to unite the UK’s health and care data, as a first step in discovering new disease treatments, and accelerating the process of bringing drug treatments to the population. In USING HEALTH DATA TO UNDERSTAND CAUSES OF DISEASE, AND RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN DIFFERENT DISEASES, TO IMPROVE PATIENT CARE (21 March) two researchers describe how they are using this data: Dr Samantha Ip presents recent findings showing that COVID-19 increases the risk of potentially life-threatening blood clots for at least 49 weeks after infection. The study – based on health records from 48 million unvaccinated adults in the first wave of the pandemic. Dr Scott Ritchie also presents recent findings showing that genetic risk scores for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases can be used to discover proteins driving disease risk.

In a related event, POLYGENIC RISK SCORES IN RESEARCH AND HEALTHCARE (23 March), researchers from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge and HDR discuss how polygenic risk scores have helped them in their research. Elias Allara talks about his research on iron regulation and iron disorders, and how he is using risk scores to understand the consequences of iron on disease. Claire Coffey discusses the importance of risk scores providing equally good predictions for all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age or socioeconomic backgrounds, and why this is currently not straightforward.

In WHAT MAKES A PERSON? SECRETS OF OUR FIRST 1,000 DAYS (24 March), Professor Mark Hanson and Dr Lucy Green from the University of Southampton reveal some surprising discoveries, based on little-known new research, and show how events during our first 1,000 days make each of us who we are – processes that go way beyond just the genes that we inherited. The event is based on their book of the same name which was published in November 2022. 

Finally, in GET HANDS-ON WITH CANCER RESEARCH IN CAMBRIDGE (18 March), The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre hosts an open day of activities and talks showcasing the groundbreaking research by over 1,000 scientists from across Cambridge, including:

    • a revolutionary new cancer treatment model that uses advances in AI and machine learning to integrate various patient data into a single platform that aims to predict patient outcomes and tailor their treatment
    • a landmark project providing brain cancer patients with access to upfront DNA and RNA whole genome sequencing to inform diagnosis and personalised treatment options
    • an exploration of how cancer develops over the course of our lives using evolutionary principles, mathematics and state-of-the-art genomics to study what happens to healthy tissues as we age, how this is altered in the earliest stages of cancer and what risk factors can affect this process
    • the first kidney cancer screening trial ever, which is investigating if it is possible to combine kidney cancer screening with lung cancer screening
    • how the Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital, a new-world class hospital planned for the East of England, is changing the story of cancer by bringing clinical and research expertise together.

To view the full programme of health-related events please visit the festival website and search under the Health theme.

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media: Instagram @Camunifestivals | Facebook: @CambridgeFestival | Twitter: @Cambridge_Fest

The Festival sponsors and partners are AstraZeneca and RAND Europe.