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Treasures from the Royal Commonwealth Society

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 09:45

The exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Royal Commonwealth Society (1868 – 2018) and the 25th anniversary of its library and archives becoming part of Cambridge University Library.

This story picks out 11 human-interest highlights from the exhibition.

 

 

A new online exhibition offers extraordinary insights into the Commonwealth and Britain's former colonial territories.

Cambridge University LibrarySidney Fever, The early stages of the Assam Company’s headquarters at Nazira (1983).


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History shows abuse of children in custody will remain an ‘inherent risk’ – report

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 01:54

A new report on the history of safeguarding children detained for criminal offences in the UK has concluded that it is impossible to remove the potential for abuse in secure institutions, and that the use of custody for children should only be a “last resort”.

A team of criminologists and historians from the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh were asked by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to build a “collective memory” of the abuse cases and preventative policies that emerged in the youth wing of the UK’s secure estate between 1960 and 2016. 

The research was commissioned to help prepare HMPPS to give evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. It covers physical and sexual abuse in secure children’s homes and training centres, young offender institutions such as Deerbolt and Feltham, and their predecessors: detention centres and borstals.

Drawing on often limited archival records – as well as inspection reports and previous findings – the research reveals how past safeguards broke down, failing to recognise children in custody as vulnerable.

Researchers found abuse was especially likely at times of overcrowding and budgetary constraint, and occurred despite contemporary beliefs that protective policies were working.

The historical overview goes beyond individual misconduct to show how whole institutions become “detached from their purpose”, with undertrained staff collectively drifting into “morally compromised” cultures where abusive acts appear acceptable even as procedure is followed.    

The researchers say this “acculturation” at times extended to inspectorates and monitors overfamiliar with failing systems. They argue that it is vital to ensure effective complaints processes and protect whistle-blowers.

The report has been produced by Cambridge criminologists and Dr Lucy Delap and Professor Louise Jackson from the History and Policy network, and is published online today alongside a policy paper summarising the findings.

“History tells us that it is impossible to ‘manage out’ the risk of abuse through improved policies alone,” said report co-author Dr Caroline Lanskey, from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology (IoC).

“The steep power imbalance between staff and children means there is a need to focus on staff culture, rather than only on detailed policy, in order to establish greater trust between staff and young people in a secure institution,” she said.

Until the 1990s safeguards against abuse were weak, and ineffective in many institutions, say researchers. Children were often left to “fend for themselves” in detention centres such as Medomsley, where reports of sexual abuse during the 1970s and 1980s have since come to light.

The research reveals major rifts in the mid-1970s between the external Board of Visitors – Medomsley’s main monitoring body – and the centre’s management over disciplinary approaches. Inspections of the time recorded that neither staff nor children “seem to know what the purpose of the centre really is…”

Inspectors were concerned with basic functions such as kitchen cleanliness. That the kitchen manager worked unsupervised, and hand-picked his team of children and young people, was not perceived as risky. This Medomsley manager was subsequently convicted of sexual offences.

“Inspectors and Boards of Visitors checked procedure, but they lacked the concepts and language to recognise that certain situations were potentially abusive. These blind spots persisted until at least the 1990s,” said Ben Jarman, a researcher at Cambridge’s IoC, who carried out the archival research.

The turn of the millennium saw a “new orthodoxy” in protective policies, combined with a spike in custodial sentences for children that wouldn’t decline again until 2010.

Part of this policy shift included the questioning of long-standing practices such as strip-searching and forms of restraint, and whether they amounted to abuse.

“Strip-searching before the 1990s seems to have been so routine and unremarkable that it’s hardly mentioned in the documentary record,” said Jarman. “As late as 1995, inspectors at Deerbolt reported without comment that staff believed more routine strip searches were required.”

However, by 2002 inspectors were expressing serious concerns about untargeted strip-searching. A 2005 inspection of Feltham described strip-searches as “degrading”, and an independent inquiry the following year argued that, in any other circumstances, such practices would “trigger a child protection investigation”.

The use of pain-inducing restraint has also become the subject of fierce debate and some policy change, following the deaths of two children in secure training centres in 2004.

Strip-searching and restraint are still used but much more carefully regulated. New monitoring systems attempt to take account of the ‘voice’ of children, who the report suggests have been recast as ‘users’ of custodial ‘services’.

Yet improved safeguards can inspire false confidence and mask the “corruption of care”, say researchers. The exposure by the BBC of violence and bullying by staff in Medway Secure Training Centre in 2016 came shortly after an inspection declaring safety there to be “good”.

“Investigations at Medway concluded that child protection failed despite the apparent compliance with safeguarding policies,” said Jarman. “Inadequately trained and under pressure to achieve contractual targets, some of the staff did not appear to understand what they were doing was wrong.”

“We wouldn’t argue for fewer safeguards, but without a focus on staff culture, even the best policies can be circumvented when an abusive climate develops,” he added. 

“The ever-present potential for abuse means that custody should be used for children only as a last resort, where there is no alternative,” the report concludes.     

New research conducted for the current independent inquiry suggests that – despite recent policy improvements – cultures of child abuse are liable to emerge while youth custody exists, and keeping children in secure institutions should be limited as far as possible.

History tells us that it is impossible to ‘manage out’ the risk of abuse through improved policies aloneCaroline LanskeyCatholic Church EnglandA room in a young offenders institute


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Targeting hard-to-treat cancers

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 10:06

While the survival rate for most cancers has doubled over the past 40 years, some cancers such as those of the pancreas, brain, lung and oesophagus still have low survival rates.

Such cancers are now the target of an Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration (IRC) led by the University of Cambridge and involving researchers from Imperial College London, University College London and the Universities of Glasgow and Birmingham.

“Some cancers are difficult to remove by surgery and highly invasive, and they are also hard to treat because drugs often cannot reach them at high enough concentration,” explains George Malliaras, Prince Philip Professor of Technology in Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who leads the IRC. “Pancreatic tumour cells, for instance, are protected by dense stromal tissue, and tumours of the central nervous system by the blood-brain barrier.”

The aim of the project, which is funded for six years by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is to develop an array of new delivery technologies that can deliver almost any drug to any tumour in a large enough concentration to kill the cancerous cells.

Chemists, engineers, material scientists and pharmacologists will focus on developing particles, injectable gels and implantable devices to deliver the drugs. Cancer scientists and clinicians from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre and partner sites will devise and carry out clinical trials. Experts in innovative manufacturing technologies will ensure the devices are able to be manufactured and robust enough to withstand surgical manipulation.

One technology the team will examine is the ability of advanced materials to self-assemble and entrap drugs inside metal-organic frameworks. These structures can carry enormous amounts of drugs, and be tuned both to target the tumour and to release the drug at an optimal rate.

“We are going to pierce through the body’s natural barriers,” says Malliaras, “and deliver anti-cancer drugs to the heart of the tumour.”

Cambridge leads a £10 million interdisciplinary collaboration to target the most challenging of cancers.

We are going to pierce through the body’s natural barriers and deliver anti-cancer drugs to the heart of the tumour.George MalliarasDavid Fairen-JimenezCrystalline metal–organic framework


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Cambridge team develops technique to ‘listen’ to a patient’s brain during tumour surgery

Tue, 10/16/2018 - 00:08

Patients with low-grade gliomas in their brains – a slow-spreading, but potentially life-threatening tumour – will usually receive surgery to have the tumour removed. But removing brain tissue can be risky as there is no boundary between the brain and tumour – the tumour infiltrates the brain. Removal of tumour can lead to removal of vital parts of the brain and resulting impairments in functions such as speech, movement and executive function (which enables the individual to plan, organise and execute tasks).

To minimise this risk, neurosurgeons open the patient’s skull and then waken them. A local anaesthetic means the patient will feel no pain, and the brain itself contains no pain receptors. The surgeon will probe the patient’s brain, applying mild electric pulses to tissue surrounding the tumour while asking them to perform a set of tasks. For example, the patient may be asked to count from one to five: if an electric pulse applied to a certain place in the brain affects their ability to perform this task, the surgeon will leave this tissue in place.

“As surgeons, we’re always trying to minimise the risk to patients and provide them with the best possible outcomes,” says Thomas Santarius, a neurosurgeon at Addenbrooke’s, Cambridge University Hospitals. “Operating on brain tumours is always a delicate balance between removing as much diseased tissue as possible to give patients better prognosis, while minimising the risk of damage to brain functions that will have a potentially massively detrimental impact on the patient’s life.”

While the current approach is considered the ‘gold standard’, it is not perfect. It takes time to apply the pulses on different parts of the brain and it may miss out some areas that are important for certain functions. The current battery of cognitive tests that surgeons use is also limited and does not test for the essential executive function, for example.

Now, a team of scientists and clinicians from the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke's Hospital, led by Mr Santarius, Dr Yaara Erez and Mr Michael Hart, together with Pedro Coelho from Neurophys Ltd, has collaborated to develop a new approach that will enable patients to get a more accurate, personalised ‘read-out’ of their brain networks, and will provide surgeons with real-time feedback on the patient’s brain activity in theatre.

“At the moment, neurosurgeons only know about function in the average brain – they have no patient-specific information,” explains Dr Yaara Erez, a neuroscientist from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. “But there’s been huge progress in brain imaging and electrophysiology – our understanding of the electricity within our bodies – so why not use this information to improve brain surgery? We are aiming to bring all this knowledge into the theatre, providing surgeons with integrated data and the best tools to support their work.”

Under this approach, patients would undergo a number of neuroimaging examinations using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before surgery aimed at identifying not only the exact location of the tumour but also how different regions of their brains communicate with each other.

As part of this process, a 3D-printed copy of the patient’s brain will be used, showing where the tumour is located. This model is intended to help surgeons plan the surgery, discuss with the patient the potential risks from surgery and involve the patient in decisions over which tissue to remove.

“Doctors need to be able to talk through the options with patients, and we hope that using neuroimaging data and presenting this as a 3D model will help surgeons with the planning of surgery and ensure patients are better informed about the risks and benefits from surgery,” says Dr Erez.

During surgery, once the patient’s skull has been opened, the surgeon will place electrodes on the surface of the brain, to ‘listen’ to their brain activity. A computer algorithm will analyse this information as the patient performs a battery of cognitive tests, giving live feedback to the surgeon. This will enable the surgeon to predict more accurately the likely impact of removing a particular area of brain tissue.

In particular, executive function is difficult to test using electrical stimulation – in part because it involves networks of regions across the brain. Dr Erez hopes that a combination of improved cognitive tests and a more accurate understanding of an individual patient’s networks will enable surgeons to monitor potential impairment to executive function during surgery.

“This isn’t going to replace brain stimulation during surgery,” says Dr Erez, “but it will guide the surgeon and it will save time and make surgery more efficient, more accurate. It will also enable us to understand how patients’ brains adapt to the presence of a tumour and how well they recover from surgery. It involves equipment that is largely already in use in surgeries, so should be easy and cost effective to implement.”

So far, the team has obtained data from 12 patients, already providing a large amount of data to analyse, with a rich dataset from each patient, collected before, during and after surgery. Although they are currently analysing this information offline, the data will help them find the best measures to provide the required information – what the ideal tasks for patients to perform are – and then to optimise the analysis.

The research has only been possible because of the interaction between researchers and clinicians from a variety of disciplines, says Dr Erez. “At Cambridge, we have different groups of neuroscientists with a range of expertise from psychology and imaging to computer science working with clinicians and surgeons at the hospital.  Whatever we need, we can always find someone in Cambridge who knows how to do it!”

The research is supported by the Medical Research Council, the Royal Society and The Brain Tumour Charity.

Surgeons could soon eavesdrop on a patient’s brain activity during surgery to remove their brain tumour, helping improve the accuracy of the operation and reduce the risk of impairing brain function.

There’s been huge progress in brain imaging and electrophysiology – our understanding of the electricity within our bodies – so why not use this information to improve brain surgery?Yaara ErezKai SchreiberBrainsResearcher profile: Dr Yaara Erez

Originally from Israel, Dr Yaara Erez is now a neuroscientist at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit – a centre that not only has “a long history of great contributions to the theoretical and experimental foundations of cognitive psychology”, she says, but “is also famous for its truly lovely garden!”

Yaara’s background is in Computer Science and Psychology. She spent several years as a software developer before deciding to pursue a PhD in neuroscience, and she is now a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow. Her background is proving essential for understanding the inner workings of the brain.

“We process the information around us in an active way – we pay attention to what is relevant to us and filter out what we don’t need. We do that all the time, effortlessly and efficiently, but from a computational perspective it is a very complicated problem. We only have hints about how this is done in the brain.”

Yaara’s interest lies in the brain systems that allow us to behave flexibly, adapt our behaviour to changing circumstances, and select only the information that we need. These systems are involved in a wide range of cognitive function known as ‘executive function’, including problem-solving, keeping focus, switching focus and planning, all of which are essential to normal healthy life. “It’s important to understand these brain mechanisms because it may help us develop treatments for patients with different brain disorders that affect cognitive function, such as stroke, brain tumour, depression, and many more,” she says.

While Yaara’s research is basic science, she is interested in its clinical application and how the knowledge might be used to improve healthcare and treatments for patients. “I believe we can improve existing procedures so patients can have a high quality of life after brain surgery. We can and we should use our knowledge from basic neuroscience to improve treatments for patients.”

Her work uses a variety of techniques that involve different types of brain signals that she collects from healthy volunteers and patients with brain tumours. “This data is very complex, so requires detailed analysis, which I like. The combination of the data from the different techniques, and what we can learn from each of them, makes my work exciting and enables me to get the full picture.

Yaara recalls the day she first saw a live brain surgery on an awake patient. “As a neuroscientist, I study the brain and know quite a lot about it, but seeing a real brain and how brief pulses of electrical stimulation immediately affect behaviour was a different level of experience and truly eye-opening.”

Cambridge, says Yaara, is the perfect place for her research. “There are people from all over the world, and they all bring their expertise, knowledge, and perspective. My research is multidisciplinary in its nature, and the combination of the different expertise of people in Cambridge makes it work. We also have great facilities here and are very fortunate to have such a great University Hospital as Addenbrooke’s as our local hospital.

“I enjoy meeting and working with people from all around the world, and the international community in Cambridge is amazing.”


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Giant planets around young star raise questions about how planets form

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 12:01

The star is just two million years old – a ‘toddler’ in astronomical terms – and is surrounded by a huge disc of dust and ice. This disc, known as a protoplanetary disc, is where the planets, moons, asteroids and other astronomical objects in stellar systems form.

The star was already known to be remarkable because it contains the first so-called hot Jupiter - a massive planet orbiting very close to its parent star – to have been discovered around such a young star. Although hot Jupiters were the first type of exoplanet to be discovered, their existence has long puzzled astronomers because they are often thought to be too close to their parent stars to have formed in situ.

Now, a team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge have used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to search for planetary ‘siblings’ to this infant hot Jupiter. Their image revealed three distinct gaps in the disc, which, according to their theoretical modelling, were most likely caused by three additional gas giant planets also orbiting the young star. Their results are reported in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The star, CI Tau, is located about 500 light years away in a highly-productive stellar ‘nursery’ region of the galaxy. Its four planets differ greatly in their orbits: the closest (the hot Jupiter) is within the equivalent of the orbit of Mercury, while the farthest orbits at a distance more than three times greater than that of Neptune. The two outer planets are about the mass of Saturn, while the two inner planets are respectively around one and 10 times the mass of Jupiter.

The discovery raises many questions for astronomers. Around 1% of stars host hot Jupiters, but most of the known hot Jupiters are hundreds of times older than CI Tau. “It is currently impossible to say whether the extreme planetary architecture seen in CI Tau is common in hot Jupiter systems because the way that these sibling planets were detected - through their effect on the protoplanetary disc – would not work in older systems which no longer have a protoplanetary disc,” said Professor Cathie Clarke from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, the study’s first author.

According to the researchers, it is also unclear whether the sibling planets played a role in driving the innermost planet into its ultra-close orbit, and whether this is a mechanism that works in making hot Jupiters in general. And a further mystery is how the outer two planets formed at all.

“Planet formation models tend to focus on being able to make the types of planets that have been observed already, so new discoveries don’t necessarily fit the models,” said Clarke. “Saturn mass planets are supposed to form by first accumulating a solid core and then pulling in a layer of gas on top, but these processes are supposed to be very slow at large distances from the star. Most models will struggle to make planets of this mass at this distance.”

The task ahead will be to study this puzzling system at multiple wavelengths to get more clues about the properties of the disc and its planets. In the meantime, ALMA – the first telescope with the capability of imaging planets in the making – will likely throw out further surprises in other systems, re-shaping our picture of how planetary systems form.

The research has been supported by the European Research Council.

Reference:
C.J. Clarke et al. ‘High resolution millimetre imaging of the CI Tau protoplanetary disc – a massive ensemble of protoplanets from 0.1 – 100 AU.’ The Astrophysical Journal Letters (2018). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/aae36b

Researchers have identified a young star with four Jupiter and Saturn-sized planets in orbit around it, the first time that so many massive planets have been detected in such a young system. The system has also set a new record for the most extreme range of orbits yet observed: the outermost planet is more than a thousand times further from the star than the innermost one, which raises interesting questions about how such a system might have formed. 

Planet formation models tend to focus on being able to make the types of planets that have been observed already, so new discoveries don’t necessarily fit the models.Cathie ClarkeAmanda Smith, Institute of AstronomyArtist's impression of CI Tau


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Cambridge Festival of Ideas launches today

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 10:14
The Cambridge Festival of Ideas begins today with a host of free events and debates on everything from the future of capitalism to the high point of the Hollywood musical.   The Festival runs from 15th to 28th October and is packed with over 200 debates, talks, exhibitions, film screenings and performances at venues around Cambridge.   Speakers include Baroness Valerie Amos, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Professor David Runciman, best-selling author Tara Westover, film director Tim Slade, author James Bloodworth, psychologist Terri Apter, Professor David Reynolds, economist Victoria Bateman and postcolonial literature expert Priyamvada Gopal.   Top picks for the first week of the Festival include:   Rethinking religious fundamentalism - Professor Kim Knott, Lancaster University, Ed Kessler MBE, Woolf Institute, Cambridge, and Tobias Müller, Woolf Institute and POLIS, University of Cambridge, discuss why fundamentalist beliefs and practices are so attractive to some, how fundamentalism relates to mainstream interpretations of the same religion and how we should distinguish between fundamentalism, extremism, radicalism and orthodoxy. 15th October   Dance in hospital will present the findings from the UK's first in-patient dance programme. Researchers, dancers and nurses will be on hand to discuss the Cambridge University Hospitals programme which has run since 2016. It offers seven sessions each week on six different wards: elderly care, diabetes and endocrinology, neuro-rehabilitation, stroke rehabilitation and renal. Bedside sessions can also be offered to patients who are unable to attend the group sessions for clinical reasons. Each session lasts up to one hour and is entirely shaped around and in response to the patients who attend. 15th October   In this year’s Hermann Bondi Lecture, The future of capitalism: facing the new anxieties, Sir Paul Collier will outline how rigorous social science can both explain and address new anxieties raised by the economic divergences - spatial, educational and international - that have arisen since the 1980s. Drawing on his new book, published in October, he will suggest how capitalism can be saved from itself and how we can free ourselves from the baggage of the 20th century. 17th October.   In The destruction of memory film maker Tim Slade will discuss his award-winning film on the cultural destruction wrought by wars around the world, from Syria to Iraq, why culture has become an increasing target of combattants and why this matters. 16th October   Tim Slade says: "Destroying cultural artefacts  erases history and the record of human achievement, it disorientates the people who draw meaning from the artefact, and as noted above it attacks the identity of the group of people for whom the artefact is a record of presence in the past, present and future. I think what is crucial is that all of us recognise that we can have a voice if we feel governments and international organisations aren’t doing enough to protect cultural heritage. We can act as individuals or in small groups to lobby, to write letters, to contribute to groups working in the area. Individuals and small groups can be more agile in responding to the issue than governments and courts can be."    In The high point of the Hollywood musical historian and screenwriter Colin Shindler explores the highs and lows of the Hollywood Musical in a lavishly illustrated lecture in glorious Metrocolor. 20th October   Regulation, inspection and extreme risk: the history behind the Grenfell Tower tragedy will discuss the historical precursors to the Grenfell tragedy. In Victorian Britain a number of disasters similar to the Grenfell Tower fire struck in various sectors of industry and society as the rapidly changing and largely unregulated profit-oriented economy threw up all manner of hazards. This event examines how statutory regulatory bodies were set up to counter these dangers, how they evolved into today’s publicly funded inspectorates and how cost-cutting has affected their ability to function. 17th October.   Synaesthesia and art: dance of light is a two-part lecture about the neuroscience of synaesthesia - the phenomenon that describes linkages in the brain, which give rise to multi-sensory experiences such as seeing sounds as shapes. It is followed by an illustrated talk by the artist Rhea Quien who will talk about her experiences of synaesthesia and its consequences in her creativity: stillness and movement – emptiness and form. 16th October   The mystery of mythical seizures reflects on mystical experiences during epileptic seizures and what they can teach us about empathy, personal reflection and how different traditions of faith or non-faith can intersect in big questions about the nature of personal experience. It includes experts on the psychology of religion and people who have had mystical seizures. 18th October   An end to inequality? - Professor Nava Ashraf will talk about recent research in economics questioning the assumption that human beings are primarily self-interested, and will discuss what many religious and philosophical thinkers have understood about human nature, drawing on Bahai perspectives on economics. 19th October   What have the angels ever done for us? Angels are a nearly ubiquitous aspect of many world religions. They continue to be widely represented in popular literature, theatre, cinema, radio, television and music. Yet many doubt the intelligibility of the angels, although they are among the most exciting and least known topics in theology. This discussion panel will address who and what angels represent in religion and culture and whether they exist. 19th October   Many of the Festival's events take place in the first weekend which is full of lively discussion on topical and historical issues and experimental performances, including:   In Black power, in Britain and on film historian Robin Bunce chairs a discussion of film makers and screenwriters who are bringing the hidden history of the Black Power Movement to the screen. Speakers include writer and producer Misan Sagay, screen writer and script editor Anna Ssemuyaba, director and producer Cathy Hassan, Helen Bart, legal producer of Stephen: the murder that changed a nation and Farrukh Dhondy, leading member of the British Black Panthers, author, screenwriter and producer for Channel 4. 20th October.   In Trade wars: deal or no deal an expert panel will discuss what the likely impact of trade wars is and how the tension between protectionism and free trade has played out in history. With historian Dr Marc-William Palen, Dr Meredith Crowley, trade consultant Dr Minako Morita-Jaeger and international law expert Dr Lorand Bartels. 20th October.    The future of work is a discussion of leading thinkers who will address whether the future of work is be one in which jobs become ever more precarious and robots take over or whether we can regulate to make the gig economy and artificial intelligence work in our favour. With James Bloodworth, sociologist Dr Alex Wood, robotics expert Dr Hatice Gunes and HR specialist Laetitia Vitaud. 20th October   Ensembles and embryos will explore the extraordinary parallels between making music and making an embryo in an interactive performance, featuring live music and stories of the beginning of life. 20th October   The Festival sponsors and partners are St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, RAND Europe, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Cambridge Junction and Cambridge University Press. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.

The Cambridge Festival of Ideas begins today with over 200 talks, discussions, exhibitions and performances taking place over the next two weeks.


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Many cases of dementia may arise from non-inherited DNA ‘spelling mistakes’

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 10:00

The findings suggest that for many people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, the roots of their condition will trace back to their time as an embryo developing in the womb.

In common neurodegenerative diseases, toxic proteins build up in the brain, destroying brain cells and damaging brain regions, leading to symptoms including personality changes, memory loss and loss of control. Only around one in twenty patients has a family history, where genetic variants inherited from one or both parents contributes to disease risk. The cause of the majority of cases – which are thought to affect as many as one in ten people in the developed world – has remained a mystery.

A team of researchers led by Professor Patrick Chinnery from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Mitochondrial Biology Unit and the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge hypothesised that clusters of brain cells containing spontaneous genetic errors could lead to the production of misfolded proteins with the potential to spread throughout the brain, eventually leading to neurodegenerative disease.

“As the global population ages, we’re seeing increasing numbers of people affected by diseases such as Alzheimer’s, yet we still don’t understand enough about the majority of these cases,” says Professor Chinnery. “Why do some people get these diseases while others don’t? We know genetics plays a part, but why do people with no family history develop the disease?”

To test their hypothesis, the researchers examined 173 tissue samples from the Newcastle Brain Tissue Resource, part of the MRC’s UK Brain Banks Network. The samples came from 54 individual brains: 14 healthy individuals, 20 patients with Alzheimer’s and 20 patients with Lewy body dementia, a common type of dementia estimated to affect more than 100,000 people in the UK.

The team used a new technique that allowed them to sequence 102 genes in the brain cells over 5,000 times. These included genes known to cause or predispose to common neurodegenerative diseases. They found ‘somatic mutations’ (spontaneous, rather than inherited, errors in DNA) in 27 out of the 54 brains, including both healthy and diseased brains.

Together, these findings suggest that the mutations would have arisen during the developmental phase – when the brain is still growing and changing – and the embryo is growing in the womb.

Combining their results with mathematical modelling, their findings suggest that ‘islands’ of brain cells containing these potentially important mutations are likely to be common in the general population.

“These spelling errors arise in our DNA as cells divide, and could explain why so many people develop diseases such as dementia when the individual has no family history,” says Professor Chinnery. “These mutations likely form when our brain develops before birth – in other words, they are sat there waiting to cause problems when we are older.”

“Our discovery may also explain why no two cases of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s are the same. Errors in the DNA in different patterns of brain cells may manifest as subtly different symptoms.”

Professor Chinnery says that further research is needed to confirm whether the mutations are more common in patients with dementia. While it is too early to say whether this research will aid diagnosis or treatment this endorses the approach of pharmaceutical companies who are trying to develop new treatments for rare genetic forms of neurodegenerative diseases.

“The question is: how relevant are these treatments going to be for the ‘common-or-garden’ variety without a family history? Our data suggests the same genetic mechanisms could be responsible in non-inherited forms of these diseases, so these patients may benefit from the treatments being developed for the rare genetic forms.”

The research was funded by Wellcome, the Evelyn Trust, Medical Research Council, and the National Institute for Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

Reference
Keogh, MJ, Wei, W et al. High prevalence of focal and multi-focal somatic genetic variants in the human brain. Nature Comms; 15 Oct 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06331-w

Only a small proportion of cases of dementia are thought to be inherited – the cause of the vast majority is unknown. Now, in a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, a team of scientists led by researchers at the University of Cambridge believe they may have found an explanation: spontaneous errors in our DNA that arise as cells divide and replicate.

Why do some people get these diseases while others don’t? We know genetics plays a part, but why do people with no family history develop the disease?Patrick ChinneryRawpixel on Unsplash


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Graphene may exceed bandwidth demands of future telecommunications

Fri, 10/12/2018 - 13:34

The researchers have demonstrated how properties of graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon - enable ultra-wide bandwidth communications and low power consumption to radically change the way data is transmitted across the optical communications systems.

This could make graphene-integrated devices the key ingredient in the evolution of 5G, the Internet-of-Things (IoT), and Industry 4.0. The findings are published in Nature Reviews Materials.

As conventional semiconductor technologies approach their physical limitations, researchers need to explore new technologies to realise the most ambitious visions of a future networked global society. Graphene promises a significant step forward in performance for the key components of telecommunications and data communications.

In their new paper, the researchers have presented a vision for the future of graphene-based integrated photonics, and provided strategies for improving power consumption, manufacturability and wafer-scale integration. With this new publication, the Graphene Flagship partners also provide a roadmap for graphene-based photonics devices surpassing the technological requirement for the evolution of datacom and telecom markets driven by 5G, IoT, and the Industry 4.0.

“Graphene integrated in a photonic circuit is a low cost, scalable technology that can operate fibre links at a very high data rates,” said study lead author Marco Romagnoli from CNIT, the National Interuniversity Consortium for Telecommunications in Italy.

Graphene photonics offers advantages both in performance and manufacturing over the state of the art. Graphene can ensure modulation, detection and switching performances meeting all the requirements for the next evolution in photonic device manufacturing.

Co-author Antonio D’Errico, from Ericsson Research, says that “graphene for photonics has the potential to change the perspective of Information and Communications Technology in a disruptive way. Our publication explains why, and how to enable new feature rich optical networks.”

This industrial and academic partnership, comprising researchers in the Cambridge Graphene Centre, CNIT, Ericsson, Nokia, IMEC, AMO, and ICFO produced the vision for the future of graphene photonic integration.

“Collaboration between industry and academia is key for explorative work towards entirely new component technology,” said co-author Wolfgang Templ of Nokia Bell Labs. “Research in this phase bears significant risks, so it is important that academic research and industry research labs join the brightest minds to solve the fundamental problems. Industry can give perspective on the relevant research questions for potential in future systems. Thanks to a mutual exchange of information we can then mature the technology and consider all the requirements for a future industrialization and mass production of graphene-based components.”

“An integrated approach of graphene and silicon-based photonics can meet and surpass the foreseeable requirements of the ever-increasing data rates in future telecom systems,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “The advent of the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0 and the 5G era represent unique opportunities for graphene to demonstrate its ultimate potential.”

Reference:
Marco Romagnoli et al. ‘Graphene-based integrated photonics for next-generation datacom and telecom.’ Nature Reviews Materials (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41578-018-0040-9.

Researchers from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, together with industrial and academic collaborators within the European Graphene Flagship project, showed that integrated graphene-based photonic devices offer a solution for the next generation of optical communications.

Lauren V. Robinson / © Springer Nature Ltd


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New legal tool aims to increase openness, sharing and innovation in global biotechnology

Thu, 10/11/2018 - 19:56

The OpenMTA is a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) designed to foster a spirit of openness, sharing and innovation in global biotechnology. MTAs provide the legal frameworks within which research organisations lay down terms and conditions for sharing their materials - everything from DNA to plant seeds to patient samples.

Use of the OpenMTA allows redistribution and commercial use of materials, while respecting the rights of creators and promoting safe practice and responsible research. The new standardised framework also eases the administrative burden for technology transfer offices, negating the need to negotiate unique terms for individual transfers of widely-used material.

The OpenMTA launches today with a commentary published in the journal Nature Biotechnology. It provides a new way to openly exchange low level “nuts and bolts” components for biological research and engineering, complementing existing, more restrictive arrangements for material transfer.

The OpenMTA was developed through a collaboration, led by the San Francisco-based BioBricks Foundation and UK-based OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre. OpenPlant is a joint initiative between the University of Cambridge, John Innes Centre and the Earlham Institute, which aims to develop open technologies and responsible innovations for industrial biotechnology sustainabile agriculture.

Professor Jim Haseloff, University of Cambridge, UK, said: “The OpenMTA provides a new pathway for open exchange of DNA components - the basic building blocks for new engineering approaches in biology. It is a necessary step towards building a commons [commonly owned resource] that will underpin and democratise access to future biotechnological advances and sustainable industries.”

The collaboration brought together an international working group comprising researchers, technology transfer professionals, social scientists and legal experts to inform the creation of a legal framework that could improve sharing of biomaterials and increase innovation. The team identified five design goals on which to base the new agreement: access, attribution, reuse, redistribution and non-discrimination.  Additional design goals included issues of safety and, in particular, the sharing of biomaterials in an international context.

Dr Linda Kahl, Senior Counsel of the BioBricks Foundation, said: “We encourage organisations worldwide to sign the OpenMTA Master Agreement and start using it. In five years’ time my ideal is for the OpenMTA to be the default option for the transfer of research materials within and between academic research institutions and companies.

“Instead of automatically placing restrictions on materials, people will ask whether restrictions on use and redistribution are appropriate and instead use this tool to promote sharing and innovation in a way that does not compromise safety.”

Dr Colette Matthewman, Programme Manager for the OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre, said: “We hope to see the OpenMTA enable an international flow of non-proprietary tools between academic, government, NGO and industry researchers, to be used, reused and expanded upon to develop new tools and innovations.”

The agreement will facilitate the use, modification and redistribution of tools for innovation in academic and commercial research, and promote access for researchers in less privileged institutions and world regions.

Dr Fernán Federici, Millennium Institute for Integrative Biology (iBio), Santiago, Chile, said: "The OpenMTA will be particularly useful in Latin America, allowing researchers to redistribute materials imported from overseas sources, reducing shipping costs and waiting times for future local users. We are implementing it in an international project that requires sharing genetic tools among labs in four different continents. We believe, the OpenMTA will support projects based on community-sourced resources and distributed repositories that lead to more fluid collaborations."

The OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre is funded by the UK Biotechnology and biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physics Council as part of the UK Synthetic Biology for Growth programme.

Adapted from a press release from the John Innes Centre. 

Reference
Kahl, L et al. Opening options for material transfer. Nature Biotechnology; 11 Oct 2018

A new easy-to-use legal tool that enables exchange of biological material between research institutes and companies launches today.

The OpenMTA provides a new pathway for open exchange of DNA components - the basic building blocks for new engineering approaches in biologyJim HaseloffGeraltDNA


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Black researchers shaping the future

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 10:32

READ THE STORY HERE

 

 

As the UK marks Black History Month, researchers from across the University talk about their route to Cambridge, their inspiration and their motivation.

 

University of Cambridge researchers


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Mental health disorders: risks and resilience in adolescence

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 09:25

When Charly Cox was diagnosed in her teenage years with depression and other mental health disorders, what lay ahead for her was “a long and painful ordeal of trial and error, guesswork and delay. I felt loss and frustration more times than I was ever gifted hope, knowledge or effective treatment.”

For Flo Sharman, who suffered from mental illness from the age of eight: “I lost my childhood to the stigma surrounding mental health.”

James Downs recovered from disordered eating and extreme emotions, but he describes the process as being “like an experimental DIY project rather than something with clear oversight and a plan.”

One in four of us experience the debilitating, isolating and traumatic effects of mental health disorders. Around 75% of adult mental health problems begin before the age of 18, disrupting education and social interactions, affecting relationships with family and friends and future job opportunities, and in some cases, costing lives.

Charly, Flo and James are among those who have lent their support – and their stories – to the mental health charity MQ to help work towards a future in which adolescents no longer face the life-altering challenge of living with these disorders.

Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen from Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry leads a project funded by MQ, called HOPES, and shares this vision: “Our brains undergo complex neural development during the teenage years to prepare us to take care of ourselves. However, some of these changes may be linked to a vulnerability to mental health disorders. If we can better understand what these vulnerabilities are, we can identify those at risk and treat them early, before the disorders emerge.”

But, until recently, remarkably little has been known about what’s going on inside a teenager’s head. Unravelling some of the complexity has required the combined input of psychiatrists, neuroscientists, psychologists, social scientists, computational biologists and statisticians – and the brains of hundreds of healthy teenage volunteers. The teenagers were scanned as part of the NeuroScience in Psychiatry Network (NSPN), set up in 2012 by Professor Ian Goodyer from the Department of Psychiatry with funding from the Wellcome Trust.

So far, 2,300 healthy volunteers aged 14 to 24 years have been recruited by the University of Cambridge and University College London for analysis through behavioural questionnaires, cognitive tests, and medical and socio-economic history. Some 300 adolescents have also had their brain anatomy and activity scanned millimetre by millimetre using MRI, a method that can reveal connections between brain activity centres.

The result is one of the most comprehensive ‘circuit diagrams’ of the teenage brain ever attempted. “The project has been a big step forward in looking inside the black box of the teenage brain,” explains Professor Ed Bullmore, who leads the NSPN. “We found that there were distinctive patterns of developmental change in brain structure and function during adolescence that could help to explain why mental health disorders often arise during late adolescence.”

For instance, Bullmore’s colleagues Dr Kirstie Whitaker and Dr Petra Vértes discovered that the outer region of the brain, known as cortical grey matter, shrinks, becoming thinner during adolescence. As this happens, the levels of myelin – the sheath that ‘insulates’ nerve fibres, allowing the fibres to communicate efficiently in the white matter – increase.

 

 

In a separate study, Dr František Váša designed a method to combine all of the scans of the structural changes in the brain through a ‘sliding window’ – as if viewing the changes in the brain network of an ‘average’ adolescent as they mature from 14 to 24 years of age. It sounds simple enough but this innovation was so complex that it took several years of statistical and computational analysis to perfect.

“We saw that the changes are greatest in the most connected ‘hub’ parts of the brain. Our interpretation is that when the brain develops it builds too many connections; then, during the teenage years, those that are used frequently are strengthened and others are ‘pruned’,” says Váša, whose PhD studies were funded by the Gates Cambridge Trust.

What makes this especially interesting is that Vértes and Whitaker also discovered that the brain areas undergoing the greatest structural changes during adolescence are those in which genes linked to risk of mental health disorders are most strongly expressed.

One of the disorders is schizophrenia, which affects 1% of the population and often starts in adolescence or early adult life. Vértes has recently been funded by MQ to search for unique patterns of brain connectivity among those who develop symptoms of schizophrenia, and to cross-reference them with patterns of gene expression across the brain. “Not only is this knowledge important for identifying new treatments that are more effective for a greater number of patients at an earlier stage, but it could also help in predicting those who are at risk,” she explains.

Another area where there has been little improvement in predicting behaviours is that of suicide – the second leading cause of death among the young.

“Around 16% of teens think about suicide and 8% report making an attempt, yet there has been little improvement in our ability to predict suicidal behaviours in 50 years,” says van Harmelen, who is a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellow. The HOPES project she leads aims to develop a model to predict who is at risk of suicide by analysing brain scans and data on suicidal behaviour of young people from across the world to identify specific, universal risk factors.

“These risk factors may be connected with traumatic and stressful events early in their lives,” she adds. “In fact, we know that about a third of all mental health problems are attributable to events such as bullying, abuse and neglect. Much of my work has been to understand the impact of these factors on the developing brain.”

She discovered that childhood adversity is related to an altering of the structure and function of parts of the brain, and that this increases vulnerability to mental health problems. Intriguingly, some adolescents with traumatic early life experiences fared a lot better than would be predicted. This ‘resilience’ was enhanced by receiving the right kind of support at the right time. She calls this ‘social buffering’ and finds that for 14-year-olds it most often comes from family members, and for 19-year-olds from friendships.

With funding from the Royal Society, she is now starting to look for biological factors that underpin resilient functioning – for instance, how does the immune system interact with the brain during periods of psychosocial stress in resilient adolescents? Are there biomarkers that can be used to predict resilience after childhood adversity?

“We are diving deeper into the factors and mechanisms that might help,” says van Harmelen. “We know there are lots of social, emotional and behavioural factors that help to build resilience, and that these factors are amenable to intervention by therapists – but which are the most important, or is it a specific combination of these factors?

“If you speak to anyone who has had a mental health problem, you will know the effect it’s had on them and their families,” she adds. “Even a minor contribution to lowering this effect through early diagnosis and treatment is worth a lot of effort.”

Video: In this video you can see the regions of the brain coloured by how much they change between 14 and 24 years of age. The darker the colour the more the myelin changes. The size of the 'nodes' of the network represents how well connected they are and halfway through the movie the smallest nodes are removed and only the hubs remain. The edges that are added in are the strongest connections between these hub regions and represent the brain's 'rich club'. Data taken from 'Adolescence is associated with genomically patterned consolidation of the hubs of the human brain connectome' by Whitaker, Vertes et al. published in PNAS in July 2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1601745113 Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.160174.

Read a profile of Dr František Váša on the Gates Cambridge website. 

On World Mental Health Day we look at how understanding the wiring and rewiring of the adolescent brain is helping scientists pinpoint why young people are especially vulnerable to mental health problems – and why some are resilient.

If you speak to anyone who has had a mental health problem, you will know the effect it’s had on them and their families. Even a minor contribution to lowering this effect through early diagnosis and treatment is worth a lot of effortAnne-Laura van HarmelenPhoto by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


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European research network aims to tackle problematic internet use

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 00:39

As the internet has become an integral part of modern life and its use has grown, so too has its problematic use become a growing concern across all age groups. It has provided a new environment in which a wide range of problematic behaviours may emerge, such as those relating to gaming, gambling, buying, pornography viewing, social networking, ‘cyber-bullying’ and ‘cyberchondria’, which can have mental and physical health consequences.

The newly created European Problematic Use of the Internet (EU-PUI) Research Network was formed in response to the emerging public health importance of problematic internet use and is funded through a €520,000 grant from COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology). The network’s aims include identifying key genetic, psychological and social factors that lead people to disordered online behaviours including excessive video gaming, pornography viewing and use of social networks.

Professor Naomi Fineberg, Consultant Psychiatrist from the University of Hertfordshire and Chair of the new network, said: “Problematic Use of the Internet is a serious issue. Just about everyone uses the internet, but information on problem use is still lacking. Research has often been confined to individual countries, or problematic behaviours such as Internet gaming. So we don’t know the real scale of the problem, what causes problematic use, or whether different cultures are more prone to problematic use than others.”  

The network, which includes 123 experts from 38 countries across Europe, has today published its manifesto in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, setting out the research priorities to help the scientific and clinical communities understand and tackle problematic internet use. These include:

  • Age- and culture-appropriate assessment tools to screen, diagnose and measure the severity of different forms of problematic internet use
  • Understanding its impact on health and quality of life
  • Clarifying the possible role of genetics and personality features
  • Consideration of the impact of social factors in its development
  • Developing and testing effective interventions, both to prevent and to treat its various forms
  • Identifying biomarkers, including digital markers, to improve early detection and intervention

Professor Fineberg adds: “There’s no doubt that some of the mental health problems we are looking at appear rather like addiction, such as online gambling or gaming. Some lean towards the OCD end of the spectrum, like compulsive social media checking. But we will need more than just psychiatrists and psychologists to help solve these problems. We need to bring together a range of experts, such as neuroscientists, geneticists, child and adult psychiatrists, those with lived experience of these problems and policymakers, in the decisions we make about the internet.

“We need to remember that the Internet is not a passive medium; we know that many programmes or platforms earn their money by keeping people involved and by encouraging continued participation; and they may need to be regulated – not just from a commercial viewpoint, but also from a public health perspective.”

Dr Sam Chamberlain, Consultant Psychiatrist from the University of Cambridge, who is leading research priorities for the network, added: "Despite dedicated research leading to some breakthroughs in our understanding of the psychology and biology that underpins these behaviours, we still don’t know enough about the risk factors for problematic internet use.

“The current level of evidence has to be increased to improve our ability to diagnose problems and predict an individual’s prognosis, as well as to develop effective interventions to help affected individuals and those at greatest risk.”

Reference
Fineberg, NA et al. Manifesto for a European Research Network into Problematic Usage of the Internet. European Neuropsychopharmacology; 9 Oct 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2018.08.004

A pan-European network to tackle problematic internet usage officially launches today with the publication of its manifesto, setting out the important questions that need to be addressed by the research community.

Despite dedicated research leading to some breakthroughs in our understanding of the psychology and biology that underpins these behaviours, we still don’t know enough about the risk factors for problematic internet useSam ChamberlainGlenn Carstens-PetersKeyboard Warrier


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Austerity cuts ‘twice as deep’ in England than rest of Britain, study finds

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 00:31

The first “fine-grained” analysis of local authority budgets across Britain since 2010 has found that the average reduction in service spending by councils was almost 24% in England compared to just 12% in Wales and 11.5% in Scotland.

While some areas – Glasgow, for example – experienced significant service loss, the new study suggests that devolved powers have allowed Scottish and Welsh governments to mitigate the harshest local cuts experienced in parts of England.  

University of Cambridge researchers found that, across Britain, the most severe cuts to local service spending between 2010 and 2017 were generally associated with areas of “multiple deprivation”.

This pattern is clearest in England, where all 46 councils that cut spending by 30% or more are located. These local authorities tend to be more reliant on central government, with lower property values and fewer additional funding sources, as well as less ability to generate revenue through taxes.

The north was hit with the deepest cuts to local spending, closely followed by parts of London. The ten worst affected councils include Salford, South Tyneside, Wigan, Oldham and Gateshead, as well as the London boroughs of Camden, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea. Westminster council had a drop in service spending of 46% – the most significant in the UK. 

The research also shows a large swathe of southern England, primarily around the ‘home counties’, with low levels of reliance on central government and only relatively minor local service cuts. Northern Ireland was excluded from the study due to limited data. 

The authors of the new paper, published today in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, say the findings demonstrate how austerity has been pushed down to a local level, “intensifying territorial injustice” between areas.

They argue that initiatives claimed by government to ameliorate austerity, such as local retention of business taxes, will only fuel unfair competition and inequality between regions – as local authorities turn to “beggar thy neighbor” policies in efforts to boost tax bases and buffer against austerity.

“The idea that austerity has hit all areas equally is nonsense,” said geographer Dr Mia Gray, who conducted the research with her Cambridge colleague Dr Anna Barford.

“Local councils rely to varying degrees on the central government, and we have found a clear relationship between grant dependence and cuts in service spending.

“The average cuts to local services have been twice as deep in England compared to Scotland and Wales. Cities have suffered the most, particularly in the old industrial centres of the north but also much of London,” said Gray.

“Wealthier areas can generate revenues from business tax, while others sell off buildings such as former back offices to plug gaping holes in council budgets. 

“The councils in greatest need have the weakest local economies. Many areas with populations that are ageing or struggling to find employment have very little in the way of a public safety net.

“The government needs to decide whether it is content for more local authorities to essentially go bust, in the way we have already seen in Northamptonshire this year,” she said.

The latest study used data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies to conduct a spatial analysis of Britain’s local authority funding system.    

Gray and Barford mapped the levels of central grant dependence across England’s councils, and the percentage fall of service spend by local authorities across Scotland, Wales and England between financial years 2009/2010 and 2016/2017.

Some of the local services hit hardest across the country include highways and transport, culture, adult social care, children and young people’s services, and environmental services.

The part of central government formerly known as the Department of Communities and Local Government experienced a dramatic overall budget cut of 53% between 2010 and 2016.

As budget decisions were hit at a local level, “mandatory” council services – those considered vital – were funded at the expense of “discretionary” services. However, the researchers found these boundaries to be blurry.

“Taking care of ‘at risk’ children is a mandatory concern. However, youth centres and outreach services are considered unessential and have been cut to the bone. Yet these are services that help prevent children becoming ‘at risk’ in the first place,” said Gray.

“There is a narrative at national and local levels that the hands of politicians are tied, but many of these funding decisions are highly political. Public finance is politics hidden in accounting columns.”

Gray points out that once local councils “go bust” and Section 114 notices are issued, as with Northamptonshire Council, administrators are sent in who then take financial decisions that supersede any democratic process.

The research has also contributed to the development of a new play, in which audience members help guide characters through situations taken from the lives of those in austerity-hit Britain. The play opens tonight in Oxford, and will be performed in community venues across the country during October and November.

Gray added: “Ever since vast sums of public money were used to bail out the banks a decade ago, the British people have been told that there is no other choice but austerity imposed at a fierce and relentless rate.”

“We are now seeing austerity policies turn into a downward spiral of disinvestment in certain people and places. Local councils in some communities are shrunk to the most basic of services. This could affect the life chances of entire generations born in the wrong part of the country.” 

Latest research finds significant inequalities in cuts to council services across the country, with deprived areas in the north of England and London seeing the biggest drops in local authority spending since 2010.

The government needs to decide whether it is content for more local authorities to essentially go bustMia GrayAKinsey FotoEstate sunset


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Restoring Europe’s endangered landscapes for life

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 00:16

The programme represents a US$30 million (£23 million) investment from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, in partnership with CCI, a collaboration between nine conservation organisations and the University of Cambridge seeking to transform biodiversity conservation. By catalysing strategic partnerships between leaders in research, education, policy and practice CCI aims to transform the global understanding and conservation of biodiversity and, through this, secure a sustainable future for biodiversity and society.

“We need to stop thinking about protected areas as isolated units in the landscape – we need to approach conservation at a landscape-scale if we are really going to make a difference. The Endangered Landscapes Programme is an ambitious attempt to apply ‘more, bigger, better and joined’, at a landscape-scale, right across Europe,” said Professor Sir John Lawton, Chair of the ELP Oversight and Selection Panel.

The ELP aims to deliver an ambitious vision for the future in which landscapes:

  • Support viable populations of native species with the capacity for landscape-scale movement;
  • Provide space for the natural functioning of ecological processes, so reducing or even eliminating the need for intensive management;
  • Are resilient to short and longer-term change (such as climate fluctuations);
  • Provide sustainable cultural, social and economic benefits to people.

Included in the initial group of ELP-funded projects are plans to return predatory sandbar sharks and Mediterranean monk seals to the seas off the coast of Turkey; create opportunities for key species such as wolves, moose, European bison and greater spotted eagles to move more freely in the vast Prypiat Polesia area of Belarus and Ukraine; establish one of Europe’s largest wilderness areas in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania; and restore Caledonian pinewoods to some of the UK’s most spectacular landscapes in the Scottish Highlands.

“Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin have united Cambridge in common cause with our closest neighbours, reflecting our best selves, our best interests, and the best hope for future generations,” said Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

Alongside this ecological work, the projects include conservation enterprise programmes, based on nature-based businesses that will provide income, employment and cultural benefits for communities and landowners. CCI will support the project recipients and help drive the success of the ELP as a model for landscape-scale restoration throughout Europe by:

  • Supporting participatory planning and development of new and innovative landscape restoration initiatives;
  • Building capacity nationally and locally, by facilitating the transfer of skills and know-how between individuals and institutions;
  • Sharing knowledge, lessons and experience to help deliver strategies, policies and technical information required for creating sustainable landscapes;
  • Demonstrating to decision-makers the environmental, social and economic benefits that are possible from the recovery of nature and ecosystem processes.

The accelerating loss of the natural world represents one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Building a better future requires a better understanding of nature and its values to people, and the practical interventions required to support economic, social and political transitions towards more equitable and effective stewardship of the planet. It is the ambition of Arcadia and CCI that the ELP will not only be effective in achieving its own aims but that it will inspire others across Europe and the world to consider how they, too, can work to restore and improve landscapes for the future.

“Landscape-scale restoration ecology works. Nature is out there: waiting. Let’s invite her back in. Together we will restore and rewild, and thus protect, Europe – our home, our continent, our love,” said Dr Lisbet Rausing, Founder, Arcadia Fund.

Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) last week unveiled a programme to restore priority landscapes across Europe. The Endangered Landscapes Programme (ELP) will provide a demonstration of nature’s powers of recovery, and the benefits to habitats, species and people of restoring biodiversity and ecosystem processes to degraded land and seas. 

Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin have united Cambridge in common cause with our closest neighbours, reflecting our best selves, our best interests, and the best hope for future generations.Professor Stephen J ToopeMike McBeyRothiemurchus Forest


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Social media data used to predict retail failure

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 00:01

Using information from ten different cities around the world, the researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, have developed a model that can predict with 80% accuracy whether a new business will fail within six months. The results will be presented at the ACM Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp), taking place this week in Singapore.

While the retail sector has always been risky, the past several years have seen a transformation of high streets as more and more retailers fail. The model built by the researchers could be useful for both entrepreneurs and urban planners when determining where to locate their business or which areas to invest in.

“One of the most important questions for any new business is the amount of demand it will receive. This directly relates to how likely that business is to succeed,” said lead author Krittika D’Silva, a Gates Scholar and PhD student at Cambridge's Department of Computer Science and Technology. “What sort of metrics can we use to make those predictions?”

D’Silva and her colleagues used more than 74 million check-ins from the location-based social network Foursquare from Chicago, Helsinki, Jakarta, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore and Tokyo; and data from 181 million taxi trips from New York and Singapore.

Using this data, the researchers classified venues according to the properties of the neighbourhoods in which they were located, the visit patterns at different times of day, and whether a neighbourhood attracted visitors from other neighbourhoods.

“We wanted to better understand the predictive power that metrics about a place at a certain point in time have,” said D’Silva.

Whether a business succeeds or fails is normally based on a number of controllable and uncontrollable factors. Controllable factors might include the quality or price of the store’s product, its opening hours and its customer satisfaction. Uncontrollable factors might include unemployment rates of a city, overall economic conditions and urban policies.

“We found that even without information about any of these uncontrollable factors, we could still use venue-specific, location-related and mobility-based features in predicting the likely demise of a business,” said D’Silva.

The data showed that across all ten cities, venues that are popular around the clock, rather than just at certain points of day, are more likely to succeed. Additionally, venues that are in demand outside of the typical popular hours of other venues in the neighbourhood tend to survive longer. The data also suggested that venues in diverse neighbourhoods, with multiple types of businesses, tend to survive longer.

While the ten cities had certain similarities, the researchers also had to account for their differences.

“The metrics that were useful predictors vary from city to city, which suggests that factors affect cities in different ways,” said D’Silva. “As one example, that the speed of travel to a venue is a significant metric only in New York and Tokyo. This could relate to the speed of transit in those cities or perhaps to the rates of traffic.”

To test the predictive power of their model, the researchers first had to determine whether a particular venue had closed within the time window of their data set. They then ‘trained’ the model on a subset of venues, telling the model what the features of those venues were in the first time window and whether the venue was open or closed in a second time window. They then tested the trained model on another subset of the data to see how accurate it was.

According to the researchers, their model shows that when deciding when and where to open a business, it is important to look beyond the static features of a given neighbourhood and to consider the ways that people move to and through that neighbourhood at different times of day. They now want to consider how these features vary across different neighbourhoods in order to improve the accuracy of their model.

Reference:
Krittika D’Silva et al. ‘The Role of Urban Mobility in Retail Business Survival.’ Paper presented to the Ubicomp 2018, Singapore, 8-12 October 2018.  http://ubicomp.org/ubicomp2018/program/program.html#s36

Researchers have used a combination of social media and transport data to predict the likelihood that a given retail business will succeed or fail. 

One of the most important questions for any new business is the amount of demand it will receive.Krittika D’Silvatoastbrot81Regent Street


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Scientists develop mouse ‘embryo-like structures’ with organisation along body’s major axes

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 18:00

The definitive architecture of the mammalian body is established shortly after the embryo implants into the uterus. This body plan has spatial references, or axes, that guide the emergence of tissues and organs: an antero-posterior axis defined by the head at one end and the tail at the other, an orthogonal dorso-ventral axis and a medio-lateral axis, which orientates the arrangement of internal organs like the liver, pancreas or the heart.

Studying the processes orchestrating the formation of early mammalian embryos is hampered by the difficulty in obtaining them. Earlier findings from the Cambridge group had shown that embryonic stem cells could self-organise in culture into structures with an antero-posterior polarity.

Now, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Geneva and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), they have extended the cultures to reveal a capacity of mouse stem cells to produce ‘pseudo-embryos’ that display some of the important characteristics of a normal mouse embryo. Established from only 300 embryonic stem cells, these structures, called ‘gastruloids’, exhibit developmental features and organisation comparable to the posterior part of a six to ten day-old embryo.

The study shows that gastruloids organise themselves with regard to the three main body axes, as they do in embryos, and follow similar patterns of gene expression. One example of this is the pattern of expression of Hox genes, an ensemble of genes that are expressed in a precise sequential order in the embryo and act as landmarks for different aspects of the body, including the position of different vertebrae or of limbs. This degree of organisation makes gastruloids a remarkable system for the study of the early stages of normal or abnormal embryonic development in mammals.

“These results significantly extend our earlier findings. We were surprised to see how far gastruloids develop, their complex organisation and the presence of early-stage tissues and organ,” says Professor Alfonso Martinez Arias, leader of the University of Cambridge team, at its Department of Genetics.

Professor Denis Duboule from the University of Geneva and at the EPFL explained, “To determine whether gastruloids organise themselves into bona fide embryonic structures, we characterised their level of genetic activity at different stages of development”.

The researchers identified and quantified the RNA transcribed from gastruloids and compared the expressed genes with those of mouse embryos at comparable stages of development, which showed there was a high degree of similarity.

“Gastruloids form structures similar to the posterior part of the embryo, from the base of the brain to the tail, whose development program is somewhat different from that of the head,” says Dr Leonardo Beccari, co-first author of the study, from the University of Geneva.

These embryo-like structures express genes characteristic of the various types of progenitor cells necessary for the constitution of future tissues.

“The complexity of gene expression profiles increases over time, with the appearance of markers from different embryonic cell lineages, much like the profiles observed in control embryos,” adds Dr Naomi Moris from the Cambridge team, co-first author of the article.

“The implementation of the Hox gene network over time, which mimics that of the embryo, particularly confirms the remarkably high level of self-organisation of gastruloids,” explains Mehmet Girgin, co-first author of the study and PhD student at the Institute of Bioengineering at EPFL.

The researchers say that these pseudo-embryos will allow an alternative method to animal research, in accordance with the principle of the ‘3Rs’ (the reduction, replacement and refinement of the use of animals in research). The finding that so much of the development of an embryo can be recapitulated using stem cells will also increase researchers’ ability to study the genetic mechanisms underlying normal development and disease.

Earlier in the year, the group led by Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz at the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge reported embryo-like structures capable of generating an anteroposterior axis but which required additional, extra-embryonic, stem cells to generate anteroposterior polarity. The new work shows surprisingly that stem cells can self-organise the three axes independently of the extra-embryonic tissues.

“It makes things much simpler for research,” says Professor Martinez Arias. “Not only do gastruloids self-organise to generate the three axes, but they also mimic the spatial and temporal patterns of embryos, without extra-embryonic tissue. This suggests that gastruloids can become a useful tool, particularly in understanding gene expression during development.”

This work was largely funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the European Research Council.

Adapted from a press release from the University of Geneva.

Reference
Beccari, L, Moris, N, Girgin, M, et al. Multi-axial self-organisation properties of mouse embryonic stem cells into gastruloids. Nature; 3 Oct 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0578-0

Image caption
Seven-day old gastruloid. The cell nuclei are marked in blue. Neural progenitor cells (green) are distributed along the antero-posterior axis. Progenitor cells of the tail bud (pink) are confined to the posterior extremity of the gastruloid and indicate the direction of its elongation. © Mehmet Girgin, EPFL

A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has developed an artificial mouse embryo-like structure capable of forming the three major axes of the body. The technique, reported today in the journal Nature, could reduce the use of mammalian embryos in research.

We were surprised to see how far gastruloids develop, their complex organisation and the presence of early-stage tissues and organAlfonso Martinez AriasMehmet Girgin, EPFLSeven-day old gastruloid


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Professor Sir Greg Winter wins the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 10:58

The first pharmaceutical based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Since then, phage display has produced antibodies that can neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2018 Prize this morning with one half to Frances H. Arnold and the other half jointly to George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter.

The Nobel Assembly said: “The 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. Antibodies evolved using a method called phage display can combat autoimmune diseases and in some cases cure metastatic cancer.”

Professor Winter, the Master of Trinity College, is a genetic engineer and is best known for his research and inventions relating to humanised and human therapeutic antibodies. Sir Gregory is a graduate of Trinity College and was a Senior Research Fellow before becoming Master.

His research career has been based almost entirely in Cambridge at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the Centre for Protein Engineering, and during this time he also founded three Cambridge biotech companies based on his inventions: Cambridge Antibody Technology (acquired by AstraZeneca), Domantis (acquired by GlaxoSmithKline) and Bicycle Therapeutics.

Professor Winter becomes the 107th Nobel Affiliate of Cambridge to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Born in 1951 in Leicester, Sir Greg studied Natural Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was awarded his PhD, also from Cambridge, in 1977.

Frances H. Arnold, who also shared today's Prize, conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyse chemical reactions. Since then, she has refined the methods that are now routinely used to develop new catalysts. The uses of Frances Arnold’s enzymes include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector. 

In 1985, George Smith developed an elegant method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. 

More details on previous Cambridge winners can be found here: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/research-at-cambridge/nobel-prize

More to follow…

Sir Gregory Winter, awarded the #NobelPrize in Chemistry, has used phage display to produce new pharmaceuticals. Today phage display has produced antibodies that can neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer. pic.twitter.com/p5fOfo0DwJ

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 3, 2018

Professor Sir Greg Winter, of the University of Cambridge, has been jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Frances Arnold and George Smith for his pioneering work in using phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals.

Sir Gregory Winter


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Cambridge ceremony reveals the winners of BBC Short Story and Young Writers’ Awards

Tue, 10/02/2018 - 19:45

Announced this evening during a live broadcast of  BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ from the University’s West Road Concert Hall, Persaud was presented with the £15,000 prize for a work described by judge and previous winner of the award, K J Orr as “tender and ebullient, heartbreaking and full of humour”.

Meanwhile, the winner of the 2018 BBC Young Writers’ Award with First Story and Cambridge University was also revealed, before a reception for all the winning and shortlisted writers at Cambridge University Library.

Davina Bacon from Cambridgeshire won with ‘Under a Deep Blue Sky’, a raw and emotionally powerful short story about a young African poacher and the brutal murder of a mother and baby elephant.

Chair of the National Short Story award judges and Editor of the TLS, Stig Abell said of Persaud’s work: “The judges were unanimous in their praise for a story which keeps a consistency of voice without smoothing over the reality of genuine conflict. The relationship between Victor and Reggie, estranged father and son, who find solace in chocolate, is an utterly convincing and memorable one, a clever inversion of normal parental process.”

Dr Sarah Dillon, University Lecturer in Cambridge’s Faculty of English said: “Many congratulations to Ingrid Persaud on winning, and with such a beautiful story. It was a pleasure to host the award ceremony at the University and to celebrate all the shortlisted writers amongst the stacks in the University Library.

“We hope that this is the beginning of an ongoing relationship between the writers and our students, especially those honing their craft at the University's Centre for Creative Writing."

Davina’s winning story was inspired by her early life living in Africa and her passion for the environment, Her story was praised by author and judge William Sutcliffe as a ‘superlative piece of writing by any measure, regardless of the age of the writer’ and by fellow judge and actress Carrie Hope Fletcher, for its ‘compassion and intelligence’.

Citing Michael Morpurgo as an influence on her writing style and having recently read a lot of post-colonial literature including Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, Davina Bacon’s winning story is inspired by her earlier years spent living in Malawi.

She said: “My story is based on Kasunga National Park where they have issues with poachers crossing the border from Zambia to kill elephants. The population has decreased rapidly and this is very worrying.”

‘Under a Deep Blue Sky’ available to read and listen to on the Radio 1 website, read by Don Gilet of the BBC Radio Drama Company. An interview with Davina will be available on the Life Hacks podcast from Sunday 7 October. Davina will also receive a personalised mentoring session with an author to enhance and further develop her writing skills.

Meanwhile, ‘The Sweet Sop’ is available to listen to at www.bbc.co.uk/nssa, read by Leemore Marrett Junior.

Added Dr Dillon: “Congratulations to Davina Bacon on winning the 2018 BBC Young Writers' Award with First Story and Cambridge University. To capture in just 1,000 words a character's present, past, and perilous future is a feat for any writer, let alone one 17 years of age. Stories like this show just how powerful this form can be - hitting you hard and fast, haunting you for long after.”

This is the fourth year of the BBC Young Writers’ Award which invites 14 – 18 year olds to submit stories of up to 1,000 words. The award was launched as part of the tenth anniversary celebrations of the BBC National Short Story Award and aims to inspire and encourage the next generation of writers.

All five shortlisted writers spent the day of the award ceremony at Cambridge University where they met Young Writers’ Award judge and fifth laureate na nÓg (Ireland's laureate for children's literature) Sarah Crossan for a writing workshop in Cambridge University Library.

They were also given a private tour of ‘Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum before attending the live award ceremony.

Trinidadian writer Ingrid Persaud, has won the thirteenth BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University for ‘The Sweet Sop’, her first short story about a young Trinidadian man reunited with his absent father via the power of chocolate.


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The Vice-Chancellor’s annual 1st October address to the University

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 10:30

A new £500m fundraising campaign is to be launched to help students and ensure the University is fully inclusive of the most diverse talent.

Professor Stephen J Toope reflected on his first year at the University as its Vice-Chancellor and on the challenges facing the institution in the coming year.

In his speech he highlighted the University’s commitment to supporting students and widening participation while not lowering academic standards.

The Vice-Chancellor repeated a commitment to a Transitional Year programme to help raise attainment in students who may have suffered educational challenges.

He also announced a half a billion pounds fundraising campaign directly aimed at student support which will raise funds for post-graduate studentships and enhance financial support for undergraduate students: “I want us to be genuinely open to all who have the talent to flourish at Cambridge. The challenge is considerable. But so is the scale of our ambition.”

Read the full speech >

The Vice-Chancellor marked the start of the new academic year this morning by giving his annual address to the University in the Senate House.

I want us to be genuinely open to all who have the talent to flourish at Cambridge. The challenge is considerable. But so is the scale of our ambitionVice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope


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Black Cantabs: History Makers exhibition opens at Cambridge University Library

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 09:43

Featuring images of novelist Zadie Smith, MP Diane Abbot and actress Thandie Newton, the exhibition Black Cantabs: History Makers opens the main Library building to the public for the first time, and celebrates 260 years of Cambridge education for black Cambridge students and graduates, from the 1700s to the 21st century.

Click here to see the portraits in our latest Shorthand story.

"The indelible mark black alumni have left on Cambridge, and the world" is the focus of a stunning photography exhibition of fifteen portraits, opening free to the public, from October 1, at Cambridge University Library.

Image: John Shearer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesThe Batebe (Princess Royal) of the Kingdom of Toro, Uganda, Elizabeth studied Law at Girton College, Cambridge in 1959. In 1965 she became the first East African woman to be admitted to the English bar. As well as being a practising barrister, Elizabeth a


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