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Cambridge Science Festival examines the future of healthcare

Cambridge Science Festival examines the future of healthcare

Will genomics revolutionise healthcare? What are the challenges to improving safety and quality in healthcare? Is immunology the future of medicine? Are we on the brink of curing Alzheimer’s disease? 

These questions and more, including the future of orthopaedic surgery, wearable electronics, medical inplants, and new approaches to prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, are set to be discussed at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival (11-24 March), which is teeming with health and healthcare-related events.

One of the most important technology breakthroughs in healthcare has brought us to where we are able to decode the entire DNA sequence and determine mutations that in some cases cause rare genetic diseases and cancer. With all 100,000 genomes now sequenced, Dr David Bentley, Chief Scientist at Illumina, and Professor Mark Caulfield, Interim Chief Executive and Chief Scientist at Genomics England, discuss how this promises to revolutionise the way we practise medicine during the event 100,000 genomes project: transforming precision healthcare on 13th March.  

In December 2018, Genomics England in partnership with NHS England reached their milestone goal of sequencing 100,000 genomes. The UK has become the first nation in the world to apply whole genome sequencing at scale in healthcare.

Professor Caulfield said: “The NHS Genomic Medicine Service is truly unique and world leading, building on the foundations of the pioneering 100,000 Genomes Project. The Genomic Medicine Service is the first of its kind where genomics will be embedded into a national health system, and it will transform routine healthcare in the UK. Genomics England is thrilled to be working in partnership with NHS England to bring us from 100,000 genomes to 1 million.”

The sequencing was carried out by Illumina in Cambridge. Speaking ahead of the event, David Bentley, Chief Scientist and Vice President of Illumina, stated: “We are inspired by the NHS plans to make genomics a routine part of patient care through a rollout of its Genomic Medicine Service, initially focusing on rare, undiagnosed conditions and cancer. Illumina is proud to support the aspiration to sequence 1 million genomes in five years.”

Healthcare quality and safety comes under scrutiny on 19th March when the Director of The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute (THIS Institute), Professor Mary Dixon-Woods looks at the challenges to Improving quality and safety in healthcare and considers why it’s so hard to answer the question: Does quality improvement actually improve quality? Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief of The British Medical Journal, then leads an interview-style Q&A.

Commenting on the challenges in providing consistently high-quality, safe care, Professor Dixon-Woods, said: “A strong evidence base for making improvement in health systems is much needed. But it has been far too slow to build. Based on the 2018 Harveian Oration I delivered at the Royal College of Physicians, I propose that instead of just trying to do improvement, we need also to study it. To avoid waste, duplication of effort, and new risks, it’s important that we learn what works, what doesn’t and why. That means a real commitment to evaluation and to recognising the wisdom and expertise of NHS staff, patients and carers in generating evidence that matters.”

Also on 19th March, Professor Clare Bryant and a panel of Cambridge immunologists discuss how understanding disease triggers may enable entirely new approaches to treating and potentially preventing disease in Immunology: is the future of medicine? It is increasingly clear that a dysfunctional immune system is a central cause of many common diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and diseases of the central nervous system such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis. This event includes a series of short talks about a broad range of immune-related topics such as the microbiome, tumour immunology and Alzheimer’s disease, and how drugs that block certain immune receptors leading to immune response could provide the answer to treating such diseases.   

An earlier event also tackles Alzheimer’s disease on 14th March. In How to solve a problem like Alzheimer’s disease: a Cambridge perspective. Three leading dementia researchers present their current research. Dr Will McEwan from UK Dementia Research Institute, University of Cambridge, discusses tau tangles – clumps of protein in the brain that are abundant in the Alzheimer’s diseased brain. He asks whether new insights, suggesting that tau tangles spread in a virus- or prion-like way through the brain, may hold the key to new therapies in dementia. Professor Carol Brayne, Director of Cambridge Institute of Public Health, presents findings from a series of population studies that support the development of policies and actions that might be valuable for us all. Dr Timothy Rittman, Senior Clinical Research Associate and Honorary Consultant Neurologist at the University of Cambridge discusses how the brain is organised into functional networks and how this pattern of organisation can be a roadmap for dementia progression. He shows how the same networks can be harnessed by the brain to compensate for damage caused by dementia.  

The use of implants in the human body can encompass a wide range, from dental implants for missing teeth to cardiac pacemakers for heart conditions. The design of these has come a long way in recent decades with advances in imaging methods and fabrication techniques, but perhaps more importantly a push towards regenerative medicine. The idea here is that the best replacement for our tissues is the healthy native tissue itself. The design and development of biomedical implants is considered in Better than bionic: building better medical implants on 23rd March. This event showcases the cutting-edge technology used to produce more natural and functional prostheses and implants. The Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials pioneers advances in imaging and fabrication of resorbable and stable polymers for biomedical implantation. Their work includes research projects to improve understanding of degenerative diseases in the spine, 3D printing of polymers, and the creation of tissue-mimicking collagen scaffolds.

Other health-related events:

  • Should parents have the final say on their child’s medical treatment? (8 March). Should the wishes of the parents be given any weight when deciding what care a child receives? Dr Imogen Goold, University of Oxford, explores the scope of parental and judicial power.

  • Coral reefs, malaria and drug discovery (12 March). Dr Ellen Nisbet discusses how saving the world’s coral reefs is helping to cure malaria. When the sea water temperature rises, the algae that live inside coral are damaged and expelled from the coral. This causes the coral reef to die. Surprisingly, the parasite that causes malaria is a relative of the algae that live inside coral. This talk is based on new research that looks at the genetics of both the coral algae and the malaria parasite in order to develop new drugs and figure out why the coral algae die of heat stress.

  • Written in blood: what can blood cells tell us about health and disease? (14 March). Professor Emanuele Di Angelantonio explains how blood donors contribute to the health of everyone by participating in studies that link environmental and genetic factors with properties of the blood, helping researchers to understand the role of blood in diseases such as heart attack and stroke.

  • Organ transplantation: past successes, future challenges (14 March) Transplant surgeon Professor Mike Nicholson and colleagues talk about the evolution of organ transplantation, highlighting successes and new research that might solve the organ shortage in the future.

  • Challenges and ethical considerations of translating health discovery to rural Africa (15 March). Iron deficiency anaemia is the largest nutritional deficiency disorder in the world, affecting over 1 billion people. Despite considerable research efforts and investment over the last 25 years, there has been no significant decrease of this disease in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Dora Pereira provides an insight into the clinical trials in rural Gambia of an innovative iron supplement.

  • Cambridge gravity lecture: Sir Gregory Winter (18 March). Nobel Laureate Sir Gregory Paul Winter presents this year’s Gravity Lecture. Sir Gregory is a molecular biologist best known for his work on developing technologies to make therapeutic monoclonal antibodies. His research has led to antibody therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

  • Donating tissue: what do people want to know? (19 March). An Informal discussion on the use of human tissue in research including the perspectives of patients and healthcare professionals on the current routes for tissue donation.

  • Tackling brain tumours: addressing one of the hardest challenges in cancer research (20 March). Brain tumours are one of the hardest types of cancer to treat, and survival has barely improved over the last 40 years. Cancer Research UK researchers in Cambridge are determined to improve the outlook for people who have this disease. They discuss how they are hoping to tackle this cancer from different angles.

  • Transforming cancer care (20 March). New approaches to prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer are growing rapidly and, while incidents of cancer will grow dramatically, it is likely that 3 in 4 people will live 10 years or more with the disease. Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, discusses how a transformation in our approach to diagnosis, treatment and care is necessary to deliver the benefits of science to most, if not all, cancer sufferers.

  • From steel to stem cells: the future of orthopaedic surgery (21 March). Orthopaedic surgeon, Professor Andrew McCaskie considers the key advances in orthopaedic surgery and research that aim to repair or regenerate bone and joint tissues.

  • Finding better medicines (22 March). On average, it costs over £1billion and takes 10-15 years to bring a new medicine to patients. Could collaboration between academia and industry at all stages of this process lead to the discovery of medicines that are more effective and in a shorter time? A panel of experts discuss how collaboration may lead to better outcomes for us all.

  • The fine print: towards wearable electronics (23 March). Skin-like or epidermal electronics that can adhere seamlessly to human skin or even be inserted within the body can be useful for health monitoring. Materials science and metallurgy researchers present recent advances in additive manufacturing techniques, whereby functional nanomaterials can be directly ‘printed’ to create devices for wearable electronics.

  • Can smartphone apps help people change their behaviour? (24 March). Professor Stephen Sutton describes research on novel ways of using smartphone apps to help people make positive lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and eating a healthier diet.

Download the full Cambridge Science Festival programme here.  Bookings open on Monday 11 February at 11am.