Cambridge University tackle the big questions at Science Festival 2018

Is genomics the future of healthcare? How ready are we for the infectious diseases of the future? What exactly should we be eating and how should we be exercising to stay healthy?

To say that healthcare is changing would be an understatement. The developments in technology, medicine and knowledge over the past 10 years have been tremendous. However, this pace of change can be challenging. This year’s Cambridge Science Festival (12-25 March) aims to make sense of it all by focussing on some of these advancements and the questions raised.

A visitor using a microscope at the Cambridge science festival
Make and test your own microscope at the Gurdon Institute during the Cambridge Science Festival 2018

One of the most important technology breakthroughs, which started in Cambridge, has brought us to the point where we are able to decode the entire DNA sequence of 100,000 genomes to determine mutations that cause rare genetic diseases and cancer. Dr David Bentley, Chief Scientist at Illumina, and Professor Mark Caulfield, 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 14 March.

David Bentley, Vice President and Chief Scientist at Illumina, said: “We are now decoding the 3 billion letters of a person’s genome quickly, accurately, and routinely using technology invented right here in Cambridge. What we are doing today promises to revolutionise the way we practise medicine in the future, by offering personal diagnoses of genetic disease and cancer.”

Children learning about chemistry during the Cambridge Science Festival
Experiments with The Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology during the Cambridge Science Festival 2018

Professor Mark Caulfield, Chief Scientist at Genomics England, said: “Our work at Genomics England and the 100,000 Genomes Project is paving the way for new scientific insights, as well as faster diagnoses and better treatments for NHS patients.”

We’re in the middle of a revolution. Thanks to genomics, we can know the entire DNA sequence of organisms, which has huge implications for personalised medicine, disease screening, new vaccines, gene editing, and more. Where will the genome revolution take medical science, and what does it mean for patients? On 21 March, a panel discussion between some of the leading experts in the health sector, including Professors Jane Dacre, President of the Royal College of Physicians; Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England; Mary Dixon-Woods, Director of the recently launched THIS Institute1; Tim Eisen, AstraZeneca; and Simon Gregory, Health Education England, explore the questions, issues and more during Genomics is the future of medicine: discuss!

Open day at the Institute of Astronomy

Speaking ahead of this event, Dame Sally Davies commented: “Genomics has the potential to change medicine forever. It has huge implications for the understanding and treatment of rare diseases, cancers and infections, opening up better diagnoses, better and safer treatment, and even possibilities for prevention. The UK, through the 100,000 Genome Project, is recognised as the world leader in this field but the NHS must act fast to keep its place at the forefront. We need all NHS staff, patients and the public to recognise and embrace the huge potential of this technology – Genomics is already a reality.”

The future of disease prevention is another area of healthcare that comes under scrutiny during the Festival. From The Walking Dead to Contagion, we see glimpses of a dystopian future that could become a reality. And while zombies and containing virus spread by dropping bombs are fiction (for now), there is another kind of nightmare that is worryingly close. Superbugs and the next pandemic. Presented with Science AAAS, the event, Understanding the evolution of infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance: just how vulnerable or ready for the future are we? on 12 March involves a panel discussion between members of the Cambridge Infectious Diseases Interdisciplinary Centre, including Professor Derek Smith, Department of Zoology and Professor Andres Floto and Dr Estée Török, Department of Medicine.

Tours of the operating theatres at Cambridge University Hospitals
Tours of the operating theatres at Cambridge University Hospitals – The tale of the campus

Genetic disease is explored during Woofing it down: lessons on obesity from man’s best friend, on 13 March. We love dogs for their companionship and work, but they can also help humans by teaching us about human genetic diseases. Dr Eleanor Raffan, Institute of Metabolic Science, explains how studying inherited diseases in dogs can benefit humans too, including examples from her own work studying the genetics of obesity.

Undoubtedly, nutrition and exercise are paramount for improving health and preventing disease. However, controversy exists over what constitutes a healthy diet. Chocolate is good, butter is back… Alexander Mok, MRC Epidemiology Unit, aims to demystify the research and evidence base underpinning public health recommendations for a healthy lifestyle during his talk, Making sense of a healthy lifestyle: how should we eat and exercise? on 15 March. Alexander’s research focuses on the combined influence of Nutrition and Physical Activity on health, chronic disease and longevity using large population-based studies.

Schools Zone at West Cambridge
Schools Zone at West Cambridge

Most of us value our health highly yet act in ways that undermine it. If we ate and drank less, didn’t smoke and were physically more active, 40% of cancers and 75% of diabetes and cardiovascular disease would be avoided. In spite of knowing this, why do so many of us persist in unhealthy behaviour? In Making sense of our unhealthy behaviour on 16 March, Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit in the Clinical School at the University of Cambridge, explores the question, ‘Why do we persist in engaging in unhealthy behaviour despite valuing our health highly?’ and discusses whether a better public understanding of the non-conscious nature of much of human behaviour is key to closing this gap.

The first weekend of the Festival (16-17 March), sees the Cambridge Guildhall open its doors to the public. Visitors can find out more about cells, DNA, diet, exercise and new treatments for disease. Also, on the 17th March, the Department of Pathology opens its doors for an entire day exploring disease and infection, from bacteria and parasites to viruses and immunity.

On Sunday 25th March, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology is the headquarters for the Festival on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. Visitors can discover how life-changing research, conducted in the labs, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies on the site, is developing new treatments and medicines to benefit society.

Other health related events:

  • Hot topics in bioscience I wish I knew more about, 13 March. What is gene editing and why should I care? Can we cure Alzheimer’s disease? What can I do with a stem cell? I’ve got the obesity gene, does this mean I’m going to be obese? Nine crucial months: how does our health begin in the womb? Hear our expert panel answer these questions and more.
  • Immunosensing: how do cells communicate? 19 March. Have you ever wondered how your cells communicate? What happens when they become active? What happens when the immune system hits the wrong target? A Cambridge Immunology Network panel discuss how our immune system works to keep us healthy and what can happen when things go wrong.
  • The science of fat, 20 March. For three decades, Professor Stephen O’Rahilly, Metabolic Research Laboratories, has been studying why some people are predisposed to developing obesity and/or type 2 diabetes when others are not, and how this information can help guide treatment and prevention of disease.
  • Burgers, bacteria and heart disease: the processed food debate, 24 March. Dr Clett Erridge, Anglia Ruskin University, presents a thought-provoking examination of some of the latest scientific discoveries making unexpected connections between bacteria, processed foods and our risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Want to be healthier? let us change your environment… 25 March. From designing age-friendly cities for our ageing population, to nudging us into healthier behaviours, to implementing policies that influence our food and alcohol choices, environmental interventions can be used as tools to encourage us to lead healthier lives. Join Cambridge Public Health researchers to discuss the pros, cons, ethics and impacts of these interventions.

Download the full programme here

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