World-first childhood health research programme, UK-first pre-eclampsia study, and debate on using stem cell-based embryos in research headline health events at Cambridge Festival 2024

A packed series of more than 120 events showcasing the pioneering health research taking place across Cambridge forms part of this year’s Cambridge Festival programme. The Festival runs from 13th until 28th March.

Headline topics to be discussed include:

D-CYPHRing DNA and the power of spit (26 March online). In this festival webinar, Assistant Professor of Child Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and programme lead, Dr Anna Moore, discusses the NIHR BioResource’s national childhood health research programme, D-CYPHR. The groundbreaking programme is a world first and aims to be the largest ever DNA research programme involving children aged 0-15. It will play a key role in pioneering new treatments and creating better care for children and the adults they will become – everything from improving understanding of mental health to combatting heart disease. They are encouraging children and young people from across the country to donate their spit.

Dr Nathalie Kingston, NIHR BioResource Director, said: “The UK has always been a research powerhouse, driving innovation and healthcare advancements. We will look back on this time as a genetics revolution, full of discovery. D-CYPHR is a world first, but more importantly, it’s giving a voice to children and young people across the country who are helping shape this programme. They are working together and with us to create a brighter future for their generation and those that follow.”

Pre-eclampsia and its lasting impact on women’s health: Not just a villain of pregnancy? (28 March). This talk explores the puzzling relationship between pregnancy, pre-eclampsia and women’s long-term cardiovascular health. It explains how the Cambridge-led POPPY study (funded by Wellcome), the UK’s largest and first study of its kind, hopes to provide answers to some of these questions. The study, which is unique in that it looks at the potential long-term impact of pre-eclampsia, is looking to recruit women thinking of starting a family for the first time. These women will be tracked over several years to see how their pregnancy goes and what happens in the years afterwards.

Dr Carmel McEniery, POPPY Principal Investigator, said: “The POPPY study is unique in that it studies women and their heart health in a very detailed way, from before they even become pregnant. Our participants are then monitored throughout their pregnancy journey and beyond. The study will help us to better understand why common pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia and high blood pressure in pregnancy occur, and why they have such adverse effects on women’s long-term cardiovascular health. The POPPY study may ultimately allow us to prevent pregnancy complications from occurring.”

Reproductive futures: Stem-cell-based embryo models (17 March). As stem-cell-based embryo models become increasingly more sophisticated, they raise big questions: How do we define a human embryo, and what should be the limits of such research? How can we ensure that these decisions are made as fairly, and with as broad a base of public understanding and support, as possible? Dr Peter Rugg-Gunn from Babraham Institute, and Cambridge Professors Sarah Franklin (Department of Sociology) and Kathy Liddell (Faculty of Law) debate these and other questions around the future of stem-cell-based embryo models.

This public debate forms part of a series of events and a wider project that Cambridge Reproduction is leading, to produce the UK’s first Code of Practice for researchers using stem cell-based embryo models. The G-SCBEM project brings together scientists, legal scholars and bioethics experts, as well as representatives from major funders and regulators of this research. A working group has already been convened to draft the new Code of Practice for researchers. The group are currently carrying out a public dialogue to understand public views and get feedback on the draft document, which will also be discussed at the Cambridge Festival event.

Diversity in the immune system (20 March). Cambridge Professor of Pathology, Adrian Liston discusses the latest research on the diversity in the human immune system. He explores how our genes and our environment shape our individual immune systems, such as how living with someone will change your immune system, and whether it is sex or gender that drives immune differences between men and women.

Professor Liston said, “On the question of sex vs gender, it is an open question (with little research), but the answer is looking increasingly like gender being the more important factor. We know that the environment changes the immune system to a huge degree, and many of the environmental challenges that alter our immune system are gendered. For example, things like smoking and use of hair products can change our immune system, which are due to gendered behavioural norms rather than actual biological differences.”

Delivering healthcare is one of our biggest challenges. Two events look at vastly different scenarios.

In the panel debate How can we fix the NHS and social care? (21 March), former Director of the Centre for Public Health at NICE Professor Mike Kelly from University of Cambridge, Thara Raj Director of Population Health and Inequalities at an NHS Trust in Warrington, NHS GP Dr Geoff Wong from University of Oxford, and author Emily Kenway explore ways out of the crisis. Chaired by economic consultant, researcher and writer Hilary Cooper, co-author of After the virus.

In the pertinent and topical session, The challenges of delivering healthcare and telling the story in a warzone (21 March) a panel of leading practitioners, researchers and journalists, including Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor for Channel 4 News, engaged with the subject of healthcare delivery in conflict and austere settings discuss the challenges following a short film screening. The event is chaired by broadcaster Dr Saleyha Ahsan, co-convenor of the CRASSH Healthcare in Conflict research network. She has significant personal experience of working as a doctor, journalist and filmmaker in conflict settings including Palestine (2002), Libya (2011) and Syria (2013). Saleyha is also doing a PhD examining the impact of attacks against healthcare in armed conflict.  Joining her are Medical Aid for Palestinians, international humanitarian law experts, and representatives from both the WHO Global Healthcare Workforce group and the WHO Eastern Mediterranean group.

On diet, three events explore the effects of food and nutrition on our health:

In Longevity and nutrition: can we all really live to 100 and beyond? (16 March), Professor Justin Roberts and Dr Mark Cortnage from Anglia Ruskin University, delve deeper into the secrets of the Blue Zones diet, and lessons from the oldest people on Earth. They critique the feasibility of reaching a century and whether simple nutrition and lifestyle changes can really increase our life expectancy.

Dr Cortnage said: “Achieving longevity is both complex and highly individual. Being healthier for longer is more important than just living beyond 100. Studies demonstrate that being physically active and eating a varied nutrient-rich diet is essential to this. Research highlights that our food choices can have a modest impact on increasing life expectancy, especially when started earlier in life.”

In Ultra-processed foods: What do we really know? (25 March), Professor Jean Adams from the MRC Epidemiology Unit, and a panel of experts, including Cathy Cliff, Soil Association; Dr Yanaina Chavez-Ugalde, MRC Epidemiology Unit; Samuel Dicken, University College London; and Tom Foster-Carter, Cherrypick, examine what we know about UPFs. They ask whether all UPFs are bad for us, and if so, what can we do about it?

Referring to newly published research, Dr Chavez-Ugalde said: “Our results highlight that adolescents are at increased risk of chronic diseases later in life, even at a potentially higher risk than their parents. This has implications for our financial, social and healthcare systems in the future. We need to have a better understanding of the drivers of UPF consumption in youth in order to design targeted policies that aim to improve adolescent’s diet.”

In Hunger: how what we eat – or can’t eat – affects our mental and physical health (28 March), Dr Nazia Mintz Habib, Founder of the Centre for Resilience and Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge and founder of the world’s first food system, and biologist Professor Giles Yeo, author of books including Why Calories Don’t Count, are in conversation about the long-term impact of diet and hunger on our physical and mental development.

One Health, a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach that works at the local, regional, national, and global levels is also discussed in:

Preserving our global health: Uniting against antibiotic resistance (15 March), is an enlightening and urgent exploration of a global health crisis that affects us all and touches every aspect of our lives: antibiotic resistance (AMR). This talk with Dr Harriet Bartlett from University of Oxford, Dr Lucy Weinert from University of Cambridge, and Dr Gemma Murray from University College London explores how the One Health approach – where we recognise that human, animal and environmental health are closely connected – can help to tackle this problem.

One Health epidemiology and the path to pandemic preparedness (25 March) considers whether we can stop the next pandemic. Drawing on her newly published research and a career at the intersection of academia and public health emergency response, Dr Charlotte Hammer, infectious diseases epidemiologist at Cambridge, draws on what she has learnt to guide our response to inevitable outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics as a global society. She also reflects on research on emerging viruses in global hotspots and on capacity building to prevent future spillovers becoming global problems.

Dr Hammer said: “To be successful in both doing great infectious disease research and preventing the next pandemic, we need interdisciplinary teams, we need collaborations between academia and public health practice, we need One Health preparedness across scales and we need to build workforce capacity now not only when disaster strikes. But at the end of the day these are stop gap measures and we need to solve our planetary crisis to truly prevent pandemics.”

Further health-related events include:

Vaccines: Into the future (27 March). Pathologist Dr Brian Ferguson; innate immunity expert, Professor Clare Bryant; and Dr Akhilesh Zha, Clinician Scientist and Honorary Consultant in Respiratory Medicine, all from University of Cambridge, alongside Dr Philip Cruz from Moderna discuss how vaccines work and what they will look like in the future. They provide an overview of how vaccines have changed in the recent years and what are the considerations for the future: What vaccines we still need? What is in the pipeline? Why we still need vaccine R&D in both academic, clinical and biotech setting? And what new strategies are being employed?

Medicine and the Rule of Law (21 March). Baron de Lancey lecture 2024 – Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, University College London, challenges lawyers (including judges) to improve the way they respect the rule of law, to avoid doctors and medicine being ruled by lawyers, rather than by the Rule of Law. He discusses high-profile court cases on prescription of puberty blockers, cessation of treatment for severely ill infants, physician-assisted dying, communication with patients, and many other issues.

During The Cambridge Children’s Hospital event (16 March), visitors have the chance to ‘feel’ the intrinsic link between mind and body through the ‘Rubber Hand’ experiment. This illustrates the pioneering vision of Cambridge Children’s Hospital where mental health and physical health will be treated together, under one roof, alongside pioneering research into childhood disease, diagnosis and treatment. On completion, this will be the first children’s hospital for the East of England, the only region without one, and the first to combine mental health and physical health under one roof.

Isobel Heyman, mental health co-lead and consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist , Cambridge Children’s Hospital project said: “At Cambridge Children’s Hospital, psychologically informed care will be taken to a new level. True co-location and integration of physical and mental health will enhance care for everyone.”

To view the full programme and book tickets visit the Festival website at www.festival.cam.ac.uk