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Press release: University of Cambridge Festival to reveal world-leading health research

The latest COVID-19 research, including long COVID, developments in early cancer detection and a new artificial valve that could transform open-heart surgery are some of the health-related topics being discussed at the free online Cambridge Festival.

The inaugural Cambridge Festival, which runs from 26 March - 4 April, brings together the hugely popular Cambridge Science Festival and the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. It hosts an extensive programme of over 350 events that tackle many of the critical global challenges affecting us all, and features hundreds of renowned experts in the field of health and medicine. The key themes are health, society, environment and explore. Over 120 events focus on health.

COVID-19: As the world locked down in 2020, scientists at the University of Cambridge were hard at work researching COVID-19. Several events at the Festival reveal the latest developments to help in the global fight against the disease.

Post COVID-19, how can we continue to keep up the pace of innovation we have seen in the digital health sphere, specifically in improving the patient experience and outcomes in trials and beyond? What are the opportunities? What are the challenges? How can we work together to maintain and build on the momentum?  An interdisciplinary panel, chaired by BBC Digital Planet presenter Gareth Mitchell, discuss these questions and more during Learnings from a pandemic: Accelerating the research and development of new medicines (30 March, 7-8pm). With Cristina Duran, Chief Digital Health Officer, R&D, AstraZeneca; Hugh Montgomery, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine, University College London; Michelle Longmire, Co-founder and CEO of Medable, Inc; and Nick Hartshorne-Evans, CEO of Pumping Marvellous.

MRC scientists, Dr Kirsten Rennie and Dr Rebecca Richards, discuss how remote testing approaches are transforming large population research to adapt to social distancing rules during Involving people in telehealth research during the COVID-19 pandemic: The challenge of scale, engagement and inclusivity (30 March, 7-8pm). Examples include a first in the UK blood draw device that allows a dried blood spot to be taken by participants at home, and the smartphone app that identifies the COVID-19 pre-symptomatic phase by collecting information on symptoms, temperature and oxygen saturation together with digital measurements such as heart rate and breathing. Innovations such as these have promise for a range of clinical healthcare and research settings, reducing the need for people to visit clinics and maintaining better online contact.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government has said that it is following the science, but what does that mean when scientists do not necessarily agree on the evidence or what action should be taken? In the panel discussion, Following the science: What lessons have we learned about science communication from COVID-19? (30 March, 6-7pm and then available all day from 31 March-4 April) experts from diverse fields look at the question from a variety of different scientific angles, from behavioural science to public health and science communication and policy implementation. With David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team; geophysicist, civil servant and science communicator Claire Craig is Provost of The Queen's College, Oxford; Daniela De Angelis, Professor of Statistical Science for Health at the University of Cambridge; Parth Patel, research fellow at the IPPR think tank and at University College London's Institute of Health Informatics and has worked as a junior doctor during the COVID pandemic. The session is chaired by Rob Doubleday, Executive Director, Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly investigates why obesity might lead to adverse outcomes with COVID-19 in Why does obesity make COVID19 more dangerous? (31  March, 7-8.15pm) There have been attempts to explain this based on physiology, but Professor O’Rahilly suggests that we look closely into the metabolic effects of obesity to move the science forward and pinpoint effective medical interventions. As the number of people affected by obesity is high, even a modest reduction in its impact on patients would be important. 

In Health data research and COVID-19 (31 March, 7-8pm), Professor John Danesh, Head of the Department of Public Health and Primary Care and an HDR UK Research Director, explains how data from the NHS is being combined with information and samples from volunteers and the national COVID-19 testing programme to understand the disease and inform the UK public health response. Using examples from cohorts of blood donors and the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, Professor Danesh explains how HDR UK has been able to rapidly generate new insights, using data provided by patients and collected by the NHS as part of their care and support.

Further COVID-related events include:

  • How the NIHR CRF were needed across the CUH campus during COVID-19 (all day from 26 March - 4 April) Nurses, researchers and clinicians discuss what happened when the pandemic hit Cambridge and research staff were asked to conduct research all over the campus. They reveal how research data helped develop an antibody assay leading to the testing of 10,000 staff members for antibodies and how they recruited over 6,000 research participants in the space of two months.
  • COVID-19 @ Pathology (28 March, 2-4pm) Talks from Department of Pathology researchers: Dr Nerea Irigoyen examines how old drugs are proving effective against the new virus; Dr Elizabeth Soilleux asks if T-cells are the secret weapon for immunity; Dr James Edgar explores how SARS-CoV2 enters cells; and Dr Brian Ferguson talks about vaccines
  • Research into COVID-19 at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (Addenbrooke's) (2 April, 12-1pm) Clinicians and researchers from Addenbrooke's and the University of Cambridge, including Ekpemi Irune, Consultant ENT, Head & Neck and Thyroid Surgeon at Addenbrooke's Hospital and President of Women in ENT Surgery, discuss their current research into long COVID. Hosted by Dr Mike Knapton (Cambridge University Hospitals non-executive director).
  • myICUvoice (3 April, 12-1pm) A discussion with Dr Tim Baker about the ground-breaking iPad app he developed for ICU patients being trialled at Addenbrooke's Hospital – which is transforming the experiences and wellbeing of critically ill COVID-19 patients.

Cancer: Significant progress during the past 40 years has transformed the prospects of people diagnosed with cancer in the UK, with survival doubling since the 1970s. However, further improvements are still greatly needed, and teams of researchers in Cambridge are looking into numerous ways of finding and successfully treating cancer.

In How our bodily fluids help diagnose cancer earlier (28 March, 3-4pm), four group leaders from Cancer Research UK discuss their latest research and the challenges of earlier detection and diagnosis. Dr Charlie Massie on how cancer might be detected with a simple test that analyses the DNA fragments circulating in blood; Dr Jamie Blundell on using blood samples taken over a long period of time to try to predict what lesions might progress to cancer; Dr Daniel Muñoz-Espín on how early lesions detected may be successfully treated; and Dr Harveer Dev on treatment stratification – how different treatments are used for different patients.

Professor of Immunology Klaus Okkenhaug explores how cancer immunotherapy harnesses the power of our immune system in the fight against cancer in Cancer Immunotherapy: Innovation from Laboratory Bench to Bedside (29 March, 6.30-7.30pm). He explains what cancer immunotherapy is, how it works, how it is helping patients, and how it can be improved.

In What can we do about difficult cancers? (1 April, 7.30-9pm) Neurosurgeon Professor Colin Watts, engineer Professor George Malliaras, and chemists Professor Oren Scherman and Dr Ljiljana Fruk discuss the problems in delivering drugs to combat some of the most difficult to treat cancers, and how we can use new advances in engineering and chemistry to overcome them.

Heart disease: In A View of the Heart (26 March – 4 April all day), Cambridge cardiovascular researchers discuss their exciting new research, from heart valves to regenerative medicine to heart disease, during a series of short personal interviews. Topics include the future of heart attack treatment and how a new artificial heart valve could transform open-heart surgery.  In The role of genetics in cardiovascular health and disease (30 March, 6-7pm), Dr Dirk Paul, Dr Seamus Harrison, Valerie Rhenius and Amy Lafont from the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit discuss the role of genetics on our cardiovascular health and how studies are investigating the impact genetic changes can have on the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Genetic editing: The 2020 Chemistry Nobel Prize was awarded to the pioneers behind a tool for rewriting the code of life. The ability to edit specific sections of human DNA creates exciting new possibilities for combatting diseases and helping people stay healthier into older age. However, there are ethical concerns surrounding the use of this developing technology. Two events explore the future of this breakthrough that has revolutionised life sciences research and biomedicine. In The dilemma of genome editing – should we do all we can to age well? (29 March, 7.30-9pm) scientists discuss the current and future applications of this technology in ageing research, as well as the wider ethical dilemmas it creates for society.  In Developing Regulations for Biotechnology: Is there a role for Citizens? (1 April, 7.30-9pm) experts discuss the development of regulations for biotechnology, with a focus on the development of a governance framework for human genome editing under principles of safety, social justice and welfare, human rights, fairness and equity.

Further health-related events include:

  • Your body on a chip (27 March, 12-2pm, and then available from 28 March - 4 April) Did you know that scientists can study human organs using microchips? What functions of our bodies can be modelled with these organs-on-chips? Could these chips model the whole human body? Could they model disease and drug responses? If so, could organs-on-chips replace animal testing for drug development? Bioelectronics researcher Anthie Moysidou examines how organs-on-chips are shaking up the way new medicines are developed.
  • How organoids help us understand ourselves and treat diseases (29 March, 1-2pm) What are organoids? Where do they come from? And how can organoids be used to help us understand and treat human diseases? Richard Westcott, BBC Science Correspondent, discusses these and other questions with an interdisciplinary panel. Dr Emma Rawlins, from the Gurdon Institute, is building organoid lungs to work out how all the different cells grow and interact. This work allows her lab to model disease – work that could one day enable us to repair damaged lungs. Mr Kourosh Saeb-Parsy is a transplant surgeon and research scientist. He is looking at using organoids to grow and replace damaged cells, so one day, we will not need to replace entire organs. This work could make treatment much quicker and safer in future. Professor Nick Hopwood studies the history of science and medicine. He puts this cutting-edge research into historical context, providing insights into the medical history behind organoids, and mapping out the different steps that have brought us to where we are today.
  • Set up for life (29 March, 6.30-7.45pm) A group of experts unpick how the experiences of our parents and grandparents affect us before we are born, and how we might counteract adverse outcomes. Professor Dino Giussani talks about how the environment in the womb programmes our cardiovascular health in later life; Professor Sue Ozanne discusses the effects of over-nutrition and obesity during pregnancy; and Professor Claire Hughes describes how even a parent’s emotional state can play a role in outcomes for the baby – surprisingly, this link was equally strong if the father had a ‘difficult pregnancy’ emotionally.
  • Baron de Lancey Lecture 2021 - Law, Hormones and Sport: A Level Playing Field? (30 March, 5.30-7pm) Is it fair to force female athletes to take testosterone-lowering drugs to be eligible to compete? Professor Bartha Knoppers, Director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University and Chair of the Ethics Advisory Panel of the World Anti-Doping Agency, explores the law and ethics of regulating hormones in sport.
  • More light than heat: Using data to gain insight into disease transmission (30 March, 6-7pm) Professor Christl Donnelly, Imperial College London, takes a long view of using data visualisation and analysis to inform policymakers about how diseases spread, how control measures are working (or not working) and who is at greatest risk.
  • AI: Hype vs reality (31 March, 7-8pm) A panel of experts cover what has been achieved; what is realistic to expect from data science and AI in the next 5 to 10 years; how experts can manage expectations; and how pharma and tech can better collaborate to realise the potential of data science and AI in healthcare. Chaired by Gareth Mitchell, BBC Digital Planet. With Dr James Weatherall, Vice President, Data Science & AI, (R&D) AstraZeneca; Professor Mihaela van der Schaar, Director Cambridge Centre for AI in Medicine; Anne Phelan, CSO Benevolent AI; and Dr Junaid Bajwa, Chief Medical Scientist, Microsoft Research.
  • NMR, drugs and targets (31 March, 3.30-4.15pm) Dr Bill Broadhurst and Dr Daniel Nietlispach discuss how nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy applications could hold the key to solving the problem of antibiotic resistance and offer new approaches that cure untreatable diseases.
  • A Microscope on Steroids: Using Cryogenic Electron Microscopy to Image Biological Molecules (1 April, 1-1.45pm) Dr Dima Chirgadze discusses how scientists can use electrons to image and obtain 3D pictures of biological molecules, such as proteins and DNA, that may help us to understand how our bodies work.
  • Browsing the Diagnostics Menu for Gluten: A Better Test for Coeliac Disease? (3 April, 3-4pm) Dr Elizabeth Soilleux presents a new and better way to diagnose coeliac disease by looking at T-lymphocyte DNA sequences – a type of white blood cell that causes coeliac disease – using carefully designed mathematical means.

The Festival also hosts several virtual lab tours with live demonstrations at some of the world’s leading research institutes, including The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute; the Gurdon Institute – during the tour two young researchers talk about how they use tiny worms or mini-lungs to explore human development and disease; the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, whose scientists have won 12 Nobel Prizes; and the Babraham Institute’s Biological Support Unit (BSU)

View the full programme at Many events require pre-booking, please check the events listings on the Festival website. 

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media:

Instagram: @Camunifestivals |Facebook: @CambridgeFestival |Twitter: @Cambridge_Fest Sponsors and partners: AstraZeneca and RAND Europe. Media partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.


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