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New genetic test will eliminate a form of inherited blindness in dogs

Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) is a group of inherited diseases that causes progressive degeneration of the light sensitive cells at the back of the eye. Dogs with PRA have normal sight at birth, but by the age of four or five they will be totally blind. There is no treatment.

Now a team led by the University of Cambridge has identified the genetic mutation that causes PRA in English Shepherd Dogs, and developed a DNA test for it. By identifying dogs carrying the disease before their eyesight starts to fail, this provides a tool to guide breeding decisions so the disease is not passed on to puppies.

Owners usually don’t realise their dog has PRA until it is middle-aged, by which time it might have bred, and passed on the faulty gene to its puppies. This has made it a difficult disease to control.

The new discovery means that progressive retinal atrophy can now be completely eliminated from the English Shepherd Dog population very quickly.

The results are published today in the journal Genes.

“Once the dog’s eyesight starts to fail there’s no treatment – it will end up totally blind,” said Katherine Stanbury, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine and first author of the report.

She added: “Now we have a DNA test, there’s no reason why another English Shepherd Dog ever needs to be born with this form of progressive retinal atrophy – it gives breeders a way of totally eliminating the disease.”

The genetic mutation identified by the team is recessive, which means it only causes blindness if the English Shepherd Dog inherits two copies of it. If the dog only has one copy this makes it a carrier – it will not develop PRA but can pass the mutation on to its puppies. If two carriers are bred together, about one in four of the puppies will be affected with PRA.

Dogs breeds are very inbred, so many individuals are related – giving them a much higher chance of being affected by recessive diseases than humans.

The team began the research after being contacted by a distraught owner of an English Shepherd Dog that had been recently diagnosed with PRA. The dog had been working as a search and rescue dog but had to retire due to visual deterioration that has resulted in total blindness. The researchers put out a call for DNA samples from other owners or breeders of this breed, and received samples from six English Shepherds with PRA and twenty without it. This was enough for them to pinpoint the genetic mutation responsible for PRA using whole genome sequencing.

The team offers a commercial canine genetic testing service providing DNA tests to dog breeders to help them avoid breeding dogs that will develop inherited diseases. As part of this they will now offer a DNA test for Progressive Retinal Atrophy in English Shepherds. Anyone can buy a testing kit, costing just £48, to take a swab from inside their dog’s mouth and send it back for testing.

“An owner won't necessarily notice their dog has got anything wrong with its eyes until it starts bumping into the furniture. Unlike humans who will speak up if their sight isn’t right, dogs just have to get on with things,” said Dr Cathryn Mellersh in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, senior author of the report.

She added: “For the price of a decent bag of dog food people can now have their English Shepherd tested for Progressive Retinal Atrophy prior to breeding. It’s about prevention, rather than a cure, and it means a huge amount to the people who breed these dogs. They no longer need to worry about whether the puppies are going to be healthy or are going to develop this horrible disease in a few years’ time.”

The English Shepherd is a breed of herding dog popular in the United States and is closely related to the Border Collie.

The new discovery is the thirty-third genetic mutation causing an inherited disease in dogs that the team has found – twenty-three of which cause eye diseases. They say that the health and wellbeing of many dogs has been compromised because of how they have been bred by humans.

PRA occurs in many dog breeds including the English Shepherd Dog. And it is similar to a disease called retinitis pigmentosa in humans, which also causes blindness. The researchers say that their work with dogs could shed light on the human version of the disease and potentially identify targets for gene therapy in the future.

The work was carried out in collaboration with Wisdom Panel, Mars Petcare, as part of the Consortium to Research Inherited Eye Diseases in Dogs (CRIEDD), with funding from the Dog’s Trust and the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.

Reference: Stanbury, K. et al, ‘Exonic SINE insertion in FAM161A is associated with autosomal recessive progressive retinal atrophy in the English Shepherd.’ July 2024.

Cambridge scientists have identified the genetic mutation that causes progressive retinal atrophy in English Shepherd Dogs, which results in incurable blindness, and developed a genetic test to help eliminate the disease from future generations of the breed.

Now we have a DNA test, there’s no reason why another English Shepherd Dog ever needs to be born with this form of progressive retinal atrophy – it gives breeders a way of totally eliminating the disease.Katherine StanburyEnglish Shepherd puppy


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Yes

British Academy elects Cambridge researchers to Fellowship

News from the University of Cambridge - Thu, 18/07/2024 - 11:59

They are among 86 distinguished scholars to be elected to the fellowship in recognition of their work in fields ranging from medieval history to international relations.

The Cambridge academics made Fellows of the Academy this year are:

Professor Elisabeth van Houts (History Faculty; Emmanuel College)

Professor Tim Harper (History Faculty; Magdalene College)

Professor Rosalind Love (Department of ASNC; Robinson College)

Professor James Montgomery (FAMES; Trinity Hall)

Professor Ayşe Zarakol (POLIS; Emmanuel College)

Professor Tim Dalgleish (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit)

Founded in 1902, the British Academy is the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences. It is a Fellowship consisting of over 1700 of the leading minds in these subjects from the UK and overseas.

Current Fellows include the classicist Professor Dame Mary Beard, the historian Professor Sir Simon Schama and philosopher Professor Baroness Onora O’Neill, while previous Fellows include Dame Frances Yates, Sir Winston Churchill, Seamus Heaney and Beatrice Webb. The Academy is also a funder of both national and international research, as well as a forum for debate and public engagement.

In 2024, a total of 52 UK Fellows, 30 International Fellows and 4 Honorary Fellows have been elected to the British Academy Fellowship.

Professor Ayse Zarakol said: “I am absolutely delighted to be elected a Fellow of the British Academy in recognition of my interdisciplinary work at the intersection of international relations, global history and historical sociology. It is an honour to join such a long line of distinguished scholars. I very much look forward to working with the Academy to advance research on the big questions of our day and to ensure that UK remains a hospitable environment for social sciences and humanities research that attracts the best talent from around the world.”

Professor Rosalind Love said: “As a grateful recipient of one its Postdoctoral Fellowships, I have always revered the British Academy and am deeply humbled by this honour. It shows that the Academy values the teaching of Medieval Latin, and research in that area, at a time when the subject faces cuts elsewhere. I’d like to express sincerest gratitude to the teachers who gave me a solid grounding and to all who have supported me over the years: they made this possible. I look forward to working with other FBAs to shape the future of the Humanities.”

Professor Tim Harper, Head of Cambridge’s School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, said: “It is an honour to be elected a fellow of the British Academy. As a historian, I am very aware of the challenges and opportunities for the humanities and social sciences that we collectively face. I look forward to continuing to strive to strengthen their position.”

Welcoming the Fellows, President of the British Academy Professor Julia Black said: “We are delighted to welcome this year’s cohort of Fellows, and I offer my warmest congratulations to each and every one. From the Academy’s earliest days, our Fellows are the lifeblood of the organisation, representing the very best of our disciplines – and we could not do all that we do without their expertise, time and energy. I very much look forward to working closely with our new Fellows – the breadth and depth of their expertise adds so much to the Academy.”

Six academics from the University of Cambridge have been made Fellows of the prestigious British Academy for the humanities and social sciences.

It is an honour to join such a long line of distinguished scholars.Ayşe ZarakolThe British AcademyThe British Academy


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YesLicence type: Attribution

Mindfulness training may lead to altered states of consciousness, study finds

News from the University of Cambridge - Wed, 17/07/2024 - 19:00

The team say that while these experiences can be very positive, that is not always the case. Mindfulness teachers and students need to be aware that they can be a side-effect of training, and students should feel empowered to share their experiences with their teacher or doctor if they have any concerns.

Mindfulness-based programmes have become very popular in recent years. According to recent surveys, 15% of adults in the UK have learnt some form of mindfulness. They are often practised as a way of reducing stress or coping with depression and anxiety. There is anecdotal evidence that practising mindfulness can lead to alterations of the senses, self, and body boundaries, some even similar to those induced by psychotropic drugs.

From September 2015 to January 2016, the University of Cambridge conducted a randomised controlled trial to assess the effectiveness of mindfulness training as a way of coping with the stress of examinations and found that it can help support students at risk of mental health problems.

Dr Julieta Galante from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, who led the trial, said: “There’s been anecdotal evidence that people who practice mindfulness experience changes in how they perceive themselves and the world around them, but it’s difficult to know whether these experiences are a result of mindfulness practice or whether people who are more prone to such experiences are also more likely to practise mindfulness.

“Because we’d been running a randomised trial of mindfulness practice with several hundred students at Cambridge, we realised this offered us an opportunity to explore this question further.”

The team behind the trial followed up with participants a year later to investigate whether they had experienced any of the altered states of consciousness being reported anecdotally. The results are published today in PLOS ONE.

Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire that explored 11 ‘dimensions’ such as: spiritual experience; blissful state; disembodiment; and unity. In experiences of unity there is a sense that borders dissolve and everything, sometimes including the sense of time, is perceived in an integrated way. Disembodiment experiences often consist of a floating sensation or a dissolution of body boundaries, which may facilitate strong unity experiences.

In total, 670 participants took part in the randomised trial. Around a third each from the mindfulness trial and the control arm went on to complete the questionnaire about experiences of altered states of consciousness.

The researchers found that people who had received the mindfulness training were twice as likely as those in the control group to experience unity and disembodiment.

When the researchers explored the relationship between the total hours of formal mindfulness practice and the presence and intensity of experiences of altered states of consciousness,  they found that the more people practised, the more likely they were to have an experience of unity, disembodiment, or of a blissful state.

Participants who reported having meditated in the six months prior were asked if altered states of consciousness happened during meditation. Based on this sub-sample of 73 participants, 43% reported unity experiences during meditation, 47% blissful states, 29% disembodiment experiences, and 25% insightfulness experiences.

Dr Galante said: “Although we can’t say definitively, our results at least suggest the possibility that mindfulness training causes these experiences of unity and disembodiment. It aligns with other studies showing that people who practice mindfulness training are more likely to describe experiencing a sense of relaxed self-boundaries and broadening their spatial awareness beyond the physical body.”

Dr Galante, who practices mindfulness, has herself experienced these altered states of consciousness.

“I’ve benefited a lot personally from meditation and mindfulness and I’ve also had many of these experiences,” she said. “They were intense, and at first I found it difficult to share them with my meditation teacher. I didn’t know if they were normal or desirable or if they were a sign of problems with my mental health.”

While many experiences of altered states of consciousness are likely to be interpreted as pleasant, this may not always be the case, and Dr Galante says that it is important for teachers and their students to be aware that they may arise and be open to talking about them.

She added: “The most common and intense experiences tend to be those that do not have intrinsically unpleasant characteristics. Some, such as bliss, can feel extremely pleasant. But some experiences, such as disembodiment or altered sense of self could be perceived as unpleasant, or startling, even alarming, especially if you’re not expecting them.

“It’s important that people who are offered mindfulness are told about the possibility that they may come across these experiences.  That way, if they do experience them, they shouldn’t be disconcerted. There may be nothing wrong with their experience, but it may be useful for them to check in with their mindfulness teacher, and if the experience was negative, to also consider discussing it with their doctor.”

The research was supported by the University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor’s Endowment Fund, the University Counselling Service and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration East of England programme.

Reference

Galante, J & Montero-Marin, J et al. Altered states of consciousness caused by a mindfulness-based programme up to a year later: results from a randomised controlled trial. PLOS ONE; 17 July 2024; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0305928

Mindfulness training may lead participants to experience disembodiment and unity – so-called altered states of consciousness – according to a new study from researchers at the University of Cambridge.

I’ve benefited a lot personally from meditation and mindfulness and I’ve also had many of these experiences. I didn’t know if they were normal or desirableJulieta GalanteDingzeyu Li Woman sitting on sand at sunset meditating


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Soft, stretchy ‘jelly batteries’ inspired by electric eels

News from the University of Cambridge - Wed, 17/07/2024 - 19:00

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, took their inspiration from electric eels, which stun their prey with modified muscle cells called electrocytes.

Like electrocytes, the jelly-like materials developed by the Cambridge researchers have a layered structure, like sticky Lego, that makes them capable of delivering an electric current.  

The self-healing jelly batteries can stretch to over ten times their original length without affecting their conductivity – the first time that such stretchability and conductivity has been combined in a single material. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances.

The jelly batteries are made from hydrogels: 3D networks of polymers that contain over 60% water. The polymers are held together by reversible on/off interactions that control the jelly’s mechanical properties.

The ability to precisely control mechanical properties and mimic the characteristics of human tissue makes hydrogels ideal candidates for soft robotics and bioelectronics; however, they need to be both conductive and stretchy for such applications.

“It’s difficult to design a material that is both highly stretchable and highly conductive, since those two properties are normally at odds with one another,” said first author Stephen O’Neill, from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. “Typically, conductivity decreases when a material is stretched.”

“Normally, hydrogels are made of polymers that have a neutral charge, but if we charge them, they can become conductive,” said co-author Dr Jade McCune, also from the Department of Chemistry. “And by changing the salt component of each gel, we can make them sticky and squish them together in multiple layers, so we can build up a larger energy potential.”

Conventional electronics use rigid metallic materials with electrons as charge carriers, while the jelly batteries use ions to carry charge, like electric eels.

The hydrogels stick strongly to each other because of reversible bonds that can form between the different layers, using barrel-shaped molecules called cucurbiturils that are like molecular handcuffs. The strong adhesion between layers provided by the molecular handcuffs allows for the jelly batteries to be stretched, without the layers coming apart and crucially, without any loss of conductivity.

The properties of the jelly batteries make them promising for future use in biomedical implants, since they are soft and mould to human tissue. “We can customise the mechanical properties of the hydrogels so they match human tissue,” said Professor Oren Scherman, Director of the Melville Laboratory for Polymer Synthesis, who led the research in collaboration with Professor George Malliaras from the Department of Engineering. “Since they contain no rigid components such as metal, a hydrogel implant would be much less likely to be rejected by the body or cause the build-up of scar tissue.”

In addition to their softness, the hydrogels are also surprisingly tough. They can withstand being squashed without permanently losing their original shape, and can self-heal when damaged.

The researchers are planning future experiments to test the hydrogels in living organisms to assess their suitability for a range of medical applications.

The research was funded by the European Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Oren Scherman is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.

 

Reference:
Stephen J.K. O’Neill et al. ‘Highly Stretchable Dynamic Hydrogels for Soft Multilayer Electronics.’ Science Advances (2024). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adn5142

Researchers have developed soft, stretchable ‘jelly batteries’ that could be used for wearable devices or soft robotics, or even implanted in the brain to deliver drugs or treat conditions such as epilepsy.

Scherman LabJelly batteries


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Yes

‘Diabetes distress’ increases risk of mental health problems among young people living with type 1 diabetes

News from the University of Cambridge - Wed, 17/07/2024 - 10:00

The findings highlight the urgent need for monitoring and support for the mental health of young people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

According to the charity JDRF, there are 8.7 million people living with type 1 diabetes around the world, including over 400,000 people in the UK. It is a chronic, life-threatening condition, usually diagnosed in childhood, that has a life-long impact.

Currently, people with type 1 diabetes rely on a routine of finger-prick blood tests and insulin injections or infusions, because their pancreas no longer produces insulin itself, although recent developments in artificial pancreas technology are helping transform this care.

Previous studies have shown potential links between childhood-onset type 1 diabetes and a number of mental health disorders in adulthood. However, it is not clear whether these links can be best explained by the impacts of living with the condition and its treatment, or whether underlying common biological mechanisms may be implicated, for example the impact of unstable blood sugar levels on the developing adolescent brain.

To help answer this question, a team of researchers turned to data from over 4,500 children with type 1 diabetes on a national register in the Czech Republic and from large-scale European DNA studies.Their findings are published today in Nature Mental Health.

From the national register data, the researchers found that children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes – compared to children without the condition – were over twice as likely to develop a mood disorder and more than 50% more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. They were also more than four times more likely to develop behavioural syndromes including eating and sleep disorders

Conversely, children with type 1 diabetes were at a much lower risk of developing psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia – almost half the risk compared to their peers.

The findings are consistent with the results from two other national register studies in Sweden and in Denmark, suggesting that the results would likely apply to other countries, too, including the UK.

The team used a statistical technique known as Mendelian Randomisation to probe causal links between type 1 diabetes and these various psychiatric disorders, but found little evidence in support of a common underlying biological mechanism.

Tomáš Formánek, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and the National Institute of Mental Health, Klecany, Czech Republic, said: “Although we found a concerning increase in the risk of mental health problems among people living with type 1 diabetes, our study – and others before it – suggests this is unlikely to be the result of common biological mechanisms. This emphasises the importance of prevention and sustained attention to the mental health needs of children and young people with type 1 diabetes.”

The researchers say that mental health problems in later life may be a result of children with type 1 diabetes being forced to make significant changes to their lives, with a constant focus on monitoring their food intake and a need to check blood sugar levels and administer insulin injections. This often leaves these children feeling excluded from social events and singled-out by peers, teachers and even family members.

Dr Benjamin Perry from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, said: “We know that people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes can experience ‘diabetes distress’. This can include extreme frustration with blood sugars and feelings of isolation and can lead to burnout, hopelessness, and a feeling of lack of control. It’s little wonder, then, that they are at risk of compounding mental health problems, spanning into their adult lives.”

Professor Peter Jones, also from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, added: “Our findings emphasise the urgent need to support children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, look out for signs of mental health problems and offer timely, expert help. That way, it may be possible to help these children early, before these problems fully take root.”

The research was supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research Applied Research Collaboration East of England at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust and the Ministry of Health, Czech Republic, with additional funding from Wellcome and the UKRI Medical Research Council.

Reference
Formánek, T et al. Childhood-Onset Type 1 Diabetes and Subsequent Adult Psychiatric Disorders: A Nationwide Cohort and Genome-wide Mendelian Randomization Study. Nature Mental Health; 17 July 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s44220-024-00280-8

Children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes are at significantly higher risk of a number of mental health issues, including mood and anxiety disorders, a study from a team in the UK and the Czech Republic has found.

We know that people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes can experience ‘diabetes distress’. It’s little wonder, then, that they are at risk of compounding mental health problems, spanning into their adult livesBenjamin PerrykyotokushigeTeenager With Type 1 Diabetes Takes at Home Test


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Yes

Professor Sir John Aston appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research

News from the University of Cambridge - Wed, 17/07/2024 - 09:02

Professor Aston takes over the role from Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, and will begin as a Pro-Vice-Chancellor on 1 September, 2024.

An applied statistician, Professor Aston leads research into the use of quantitative evidence in public policy making, works with those in public life to ensure the best methods are used, and aims to improve the use of statistics and other quantitative evidence in public policy debates.

He is a non-Executive Board Member of the UK Statistics Authority, and from 2017-2020 was Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office and Director-General for Science, Technology, Analysis, Research and Strategy. He was a founding director of the Alan Turing Institute. He is a member of the London Policing Board and president-elect of the Royal Statistical Society, where he will serve as President between 2025-26. Earlier this year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences and the oldest science academy in continuous existence.

Before joining Cambridge, Professor Aston – a Fellow of Churchill College – held academic positions at the University of Warwick and at Academia Sinica in Taiwan. He was knighted in the 2021 Birthday Honours for services to statistics and public policymaking.

As Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor Aston will provide senior academic leadership on the University’s research activities, and be responsible for sustaining and enhancing a supportive research culture which allows Cambridge to continue to flourish as an outstanding research‑intensive institution with worldwide influence. He will also develop large-scale, cross-School initiatives to tackle global challenges and increase the positive impact of Cambridge’s research on society.

Professor Aston will build on the foundations laid by Professor Ferguson‑Smith, who has been appointed Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Professor Aston said: “I’m honoured and privileged to take up this position, building on Anne’s amazing work, and to have the opportunity to champion the world-class research happening in Cambridge. We have so many talented people here, and an important part of my role will be about supporting them, and making sure we’ve got the best culture for research to continue attracting and retaining the best researchers. We do so many things brilliantly at Cambridge, but our research and our amazing researchers have changed the world and we are rightly incredibly proud of that.”

The University of Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice welcomed Professor Aston to the role and thanked Professor Ferguson‑Smith for her service.

She said: “John brings a wealth of experience and enthusiasm to the role, and I’m thrilled to welcome him to the team. He will build on the excellent work of Anne Ferguson-Smith, who I thank sincerely for her unstinting leadership. Ensuring a creative and supportive research environment is critical to the work of the University, and John is ideally placed to inspire our amazing academic community and advance the impact of research at Cambridge.”

There are five Pro-Vice-Chancellors at the University of Cambridge. Their role is to work in partnership with other senior leaders, including Heads of School and Professional Services leads, to help drive strategy and policy development. The Pro-Vice-Chancellors also support the Vice-Chancellor in providing academic leadership to the University.

Professor Sir John Aston has been appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge. He is Harding Professor of Statistics in Public Life within the University’s Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics.

We do so many things brilliantly at Cambridge, but our research and our amazing researchers have changed the world and we are rightly incredibly proud of that.Professor John AstonProfessor Sir John Aston


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Yes

Professor Anna Philpott appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Resources and Operations

News from the University of Cambridge - Wed, 17/07/2024 - 09:01

Professor Philpott will take up her new position in October 2024, and takes over from current Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor David Cardwell.

A developmental biologist with a long-standing interest in how cells within developing embryos decide which fate to adopt, as well as how they decide whether to proliferate or arrest cell division and adopt a mature functional state, Professor Philpott is also interested in how control of these processes is subverted in cancer cells.

She undertook her first Degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge, studying at Selwyn College, and followed this with a PhD in chromatin biology, also at Cambridge.  She then moved to Boston in the US, to undertake two post-doctoral fellowships at Harvard Medical School. She moved back to Cambridge in 1998 to start her own lab in the Department of Oncology, and is a Fellow of Clare College.

Her laboratory in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute continues to use multiple experimental systems, and in particular Xenopus frog eggs and embryos, to understand fundamental mechanisms controlling cell fate and differentiation during embryogenesis, and how these are subverted to drive the aberrant behaviour of cancer cells. She was elected to the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 2020, and the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2022.

As Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Resources and Operations, Professor Philpott will provide leadership across four principal areas:

  • The prioritisation, distribution and use of resources across the University to optimise operational effectiveness
  • Integration of academic planning with resource planning
  • Oversight of the University’s change programmes
  • Oversight of the University’s IT and digital capability

Working within a rapidly changing landscape of higher education, early priorities will be around delivering changes in systems and processes behind a number of significant operational areas, including finances, human resources and the University estate, to best position Cambridge to meet its academic needs moving forward.

She said: “This is an opportunity to help ensure our long-term operational effectiveness and financial sustainability, which underpin our academic mission and are critical to allow the University to continue to thrive into the future. I’m excited to work with our community, furthering its priorities now, and helping make this world-leading institution even stronger for the next generation of students, staff and researchers.”

Professor Philpott is taking over from Professor Cardwell, who has served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Strategy and Planning since August 2018, having been reappointed for a second term in March 2021. Professor Cardwell has supported and strengthened the University’s academic endeavour, overseeing the distribution of resources, co-ordinating academic strategy across the institution, and developing the University’s planning and budgeting process so that it is priority-led. During the COVID-19 pandemic he was the academic lead in the safe closure and re-occupation of more than 700 University buildings during the repeated periods of lockdown.

The University of Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice welcomed Professor Philpott to the role and thanked Professor Cardwell for his service.

She said: “Anna’s expertise and experience as an academic leader will be invaluable as the University develops its operational effectiveness and efficiency, bolsters its global academic standing, and enhances its capacity to contribute to society. She will continue the exceptional work of David Cardwell, who I would like to sincerely thank for his service to the University, and for everything he has achieved in his role as Pro-Vice-Chancellor over the past six years.”

The repositioning of the Pro-Vice-Chancellor role reflects the different calls on the University’s resources and the consequential need for a greater focus on prioritisation and operational effectiveness.

There are five Pro-Vice-Chancellors at the University of Cambridge. Their role is to work in partnership with other senior leaders, including Heads of School and Professional Services leads, to help drive strategy and policy development. The Pro-Vice-Chancellors also support the Vice-Chancellor in providing academic leadership to the University.

Professor Anna Philpott has been appointed as the University of Cambridge’s new Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Resources and Operations. She is currently Professor of Cancer and Developmental Biology, and Head of The School of the Biological Sciences at the University.

I’m excited to work with our community, furthering its priorities now, and helping make this world-leading institution even stronger for the next generation of students, staff and researchers.Professor Anna PhilpottProfessor Anna Philpott


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Yes

Ultra-processed food makes up almost two-thirds of calorie intake of UK adolescents

News from the University of Cambridge - Wed, 17/07/2024 - 02:30

The study found that UPF consumption was highest among adolescents from deprived backgrounds, those of white ethnicity, and younger adolescents.

UPFs are food items that are manufactured from industrial substances and contain additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, colourings, flavourings, and emulsifiers. UPFs vary greatly, but tend to indicate poor dietary quality, with higher levels of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, as well as decreased fibre, protein, and micronutrient content. They have been suggested as one of the key drivers of the global rise in diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

Globally, the availability and sales of UPFs have increased over time and previous evidence suggests that this has led to increased consumption among adolescents. To look at trends within the UK, researchers from Cambridge and Bristol analysed data from four-day food diaries of almost 3,000 adolescents in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey between 2008/09 and 2018/19.

In research published today in the European Journal of Nutrition, the researchers found that a mean of 66% of adolescents’ energy intake came from UPF consumption during this period, though there was a slight fall from 68% to 63% between 2008/09 and 2018/2019.

Parents’ occupation, ethnic group and UK region all influenced the proportion of calorie intake from UPFs:

  • Adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds consumed a higher proportion of their calorie intake from UPFs compared to adolescents from less disadvantaged backgrounds (68.4% compared with 63.8%).  
  • Adolescents from a non-white ethnicity consumed a lower proportion of their calorie intake from UPFs (59.0% compared with 67.3%).
  • Adolescents living in the North of England consumed a higher proportion of their calorie intake from UPFs compared with those living in the South of England and London (67.4% compared with 64.1%).
  • 18-year-olds consumed a lower proportion of their calorie intake from UPFs compared with 11-year-olds (63.4% compared with 65.6%).

Dr Yanaina Chavez-Ugalde from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, the study’s first author, said: “Adolescents’ food patterns and practices are influenced by many factors, including their home environment, the marketing they are exposed to and the influence of their friends and peers. But adolescence is also an important time in our lives where behaviours begin to become ingrained.

“It’s clear from our findings that ultra-processed foods make up the majority of adolescents’ diets, and their consumption is at a much higher level than is ideal, given their potential negative health impacts.”

The researchers argue that the observed reduction in UPF intake pre-pandemic could be partly explained by an increased public awareness and health concerns associated with sugar consumption, government-led campaigns, sugar-taxes in other countries and the reformulation of sugary drinks to reduce their sugar content.

Dr Esther van Sluijs from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge, joint senior author, said: “Ultra-processed foods offer convenient and often cheaper solutions to time- and income-poor families, but unfortunately many of these foods also offer poor nutritional value. This could be contributing to the inequalities in health we see emerging across childhood and adolescence.”

Dr Zoi Toumpakari from the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences at the University of Bristol, joint senior author, added: “Our findings suggest that disparities in consumption of ultra-processed foods are not just down to individual choices. We hope this evidence can help guide policymakers in designing more effective policies to combat the negative effects of ultra-processed food consumption among youth and the ripple effects this has on public health.”

This study was largely funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research School for Public Health Research.

Reference
Chavez-Ugalde, Y et al. Ultra-processed food consumption in UK adolescents: distribution, trends, and sociodemographic correlates using the National Diet and Nutrition Survey 2008/09 to 2018/19. Eur J Nutr; 17 Jul 2024; DOI: 10.1007/s00394-024-03458-z

Adolescents consume around two-thirds of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods (UPFs), new research from the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol has found.

Ultra-processed foods make up the majority of adolescents’ diets, and their consumption is at a much higher level than is ideal, given their potential negative health impactsYanaina Chavez-UgaldePolina TankilevitchPerson holding a cheeseburger


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

AI Chatbots have shown they have an ‘empathy gap’ that children are likely to miss

News from the University of Cambridge - Mon, 15/07/2024 - 14:05

When not designed with children’s needs in mind, Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots have an “empathy gap” that puts young users at particular risk of distress or harm, according to a study.

The research, by a University of Cambridge academic, Dr Nomisha Kurian, urges developers and policy actors to make “child-safe AI” an urgent priority. It provides evidence that children are particularly susceptible to treating AI chatbots as lifelike, quasi-human confidantes, and that their interactions with the technology can often go awry when it fails to respond to their unique needs and vulnerabilities.

The study links that gap in understanding to recent cases in which interactions with AI led to potentially dangerous situations for young users. They include an incident in 2021, when Amazon’s AI voice assistant, Alexa, instructed a 10-year-old to touch a live electrical plug with a coin. Last year, Snapchat’s My AI gave adult researchers posing as a 13-year-old girl tips on how to lose her virginity to a 31-year-old.

Both companies responded by implementing safety measures, but the study says there is also a need to be proactive in the long-term to ensure that AI is child-safe. It offers a 28-item framework to help companies, teachers, school leaders, parents, developers and policy actors think systematically about how to keep younger users safe when they “talk" to AI chatbots.

Dr Kurian conducted the research while completing a PhD on child wellbeing at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is now based in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge. Writing in the journal Learning, Media and Technology, she argues that AI has huge potential, which deepens the need to “innovate responsibly”.

“Children are probably AI’s most overlooked stakeholders,” Dr Kurian said. “Very few developers and companies currently have well-established policies on how child-safe AI looks and sounds. That is understandable because people have only recently started using this technology on a large scale for free. But now that they are, rather than having companies self-correct after children have been put at risk, child safety should inform the entire design cycle to lower the risk of dangerous incidents occurring.”

Kurian’s study examined real-life cases where the interactions between AI and  children, or adult researchers posing as children, exposed potential risks. It analysed these cases using insights from computer science about how the large language models (LLMs) in conversational generative AI function, alongside evidence about children’s cognitive, social and emotional development.

LLMs have been described as “stochastic parrots”: a reference to the fact that they currently use statistical probability to mimic language patterns without necessarily understanding them. A similar method underpins how they respond to emotions.

This means that even though chatbots have remarkable language abilities, they may handle the abstract, emotional and unpredictable aspects of conversation poorly; a problem that Kurian characterises as their “empathy gap”. They may have particular trouble responding to children, who are still developing linguistically and often use unusual speech patterns or ambiguous phrases. Children are also often more inclined than adults to confide sensitive personal information.

Despite this, children are much more likely than adults to treat chatbots as if they are human. Recent research found that children will disclose more about their own mental health to a friendly-looking robot than to an adult. Kurian’s study suggests that many chatbots’ friendly and lifelike designs similarly encourage children to trust them, even though AI may not understand their feelings or needs.

“Making a chatbot sound human can help the user get more benefits out of it, since it sounds more engaging, appealing and easy to understand,” Kurian said. “But for a child, it is very hard to draw a rigid, rational boundary between something that sounds human, and the reality that it may not be capable of forming a proper emotional bond.”

Her study suggests that these challenges are evidenced in reported cases such as the Alexa and MyAI incidents, where chatbots made persuasive but potentially harmful suggestions to young users.

In the same study in which MyAI advised a (supposed) teenager on how to lose her virginity, researchers were able to obtain tips on hiding alcohol and drugs, and concealing Snapchat conversations from their “parents”. In a separate reported interaction with Microsoft’s Bing chatbot, a tool which was designed to be adolescent-friendly, the AI became aggressive and started gaslighting a user who was asking about cinema screenings.
 
While adults may find this behaviour intriguing or even funny, Kurian’s study argues that it is potentially confusing and distressing for children, who may trust a chatbot as a friend or confidante. Children’s chatbot use is often informal and poorly monitored. Research by the nonprofit organisation Common Sense Media has found that 50% of students aged 12-18 have used Chat GPT for school, but only 26% of parents are aware of them doing so.

Kurian argues that clear principles for best practice that draw on the science of child development will help companies keep children safe, since developers who are locked into a commercial arms race to dominate the AI market may otherwise lack sufficient support and guidance around catering to their youngest users.

Her study adds that the empathy gap does not negate the technology’s potential. “AI can be an incredible ally for children when designed with their needs in mind - for example, we are already seeing the use of machine learning to reunite missing children with their families and some exciting innovations in giving children personalised learning companions. The question is not about banning children from using AI, but how to make it safe to help them get the most value from it,” she said.

The study therefore proposes a framework of 28 questions to help educators, researchers, policy actors, families and developers evaluate and enhance the safety of new AI tools.

For teachers and researchers, these prompts address issues such as how well new chatbots understand and interpret children’s speech patterns; whether they have content filters and built-in monitoring; and whether they encourage children to seek help from a responsible adult on sensitive issues.

The framework urges developers to take a child-centred approach to design, by working closely with educators, child safety experts and young people themselves, throughout the design cycle. “Assessing these technologies in advance is crucial,” Kurian said. “We cannot just rely on young children to tell us about negative experiences after the fact. A more proactive approach is necessary. The future of responsible AI depends on protecting its youngest users.”

New study proposes a framework for “Child Safe AI” following recent incidents which revealed that many children see chatbots as quasi-human and trustworthy.

Nick David/Getty Child playing on tablet


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Yes

Artificial intelligence outperforms clinical tests at predicting progress of Alzheimer’s disease

News from the University of Cambridge - Fri, 12/07/2024 - 23:30

The team say this new approach could reduce the need for invasive and costly diagnostic tests while improving treatment outcomes early when interventions such as lifestyle changes or new medicines may have a chance to work best.

Dementia poses a significant global healthcare challenge, affecting over 55 million people worldwide at an estimated annual cost of $820 billion. The number of cases is expected to almost treble over the next 50 years.

The main cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60-80% of cases. Early detection is crucial as this is when treatments are likely to be most effective, yet early dementia diagnosis and prognosis may not be accurate without the use of invasive or expensive tests such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans or lumbar puncture, which are not available in all memory clinics. As a result, up to a third of patients may be misdiagnosed and others diagnosed too late for treatment to be effective.

A team led by scientists from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge has developed a machine learning model able to predict whether and how fast an individual with mild memory and thinking problems will progress to developing Alzheimer’s disease. In research published today in eClinical Medicine, they show that it is more accurate than current clinical diagnostic tools.

To build their model, the researchers used routinely-collected, non-invasive, and low-cost patient data – cognitive tests and structural MRI scans showing grey matter atrophy – from over 400 individuals who were part of a research cohort in the USA.

They then tested the model using real-world patient data from a further 600 participants from the US cohort and – importantly – longitudinal data from 900 people from memory clinics in the UK and Singapore.

The algorithm was able to distinguish between people with stable mild cognitive impairment and those who progressed to Alzheimer’s disease within a three-year period. It was able to correctly identify individuals who went on to develop Alzheimer’s in 82% of cases and correctly identify those who didn’t in 81% of cases from cognitive tests and an MRI scan alone.

The algorithm was around three times more accurate at predicting the progression to Alzheimer’s than the current standard of care; that is, standard clinical markers (such as grey matter atrophy or cognitive scores) or clinical diagnosis. This shows that the model could significantly reduce misdiagnosis.

The model also allowed the researchers to stratify people with Alzheimer’s disease using data from each person’s first visit at the memory clinic into three groups: those whose symptoms would remain stable (around 50% of participants), those who would progress to Alzheimer’s slowly (around 35%) and those who would progress more rapidly (the remaining 15%). These predictions were validated when looking at follow-up data over 6 years. This is important as it could help identify those people at an early enough stage that they may benefit from new treatments, while also identifying those people who need close monitoring as their condition is likely to deteriorate rapidly.

Importantly, those 50% of people who have symptoms such as memory loss but remain stable, would be better directed to a different clinical pathway as their symptoms may be due to other causes rather than dementia, such as anxiety or depression.

Senior author Professor Zoe Kourtzi from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge said: “We’ve created a tool which, despite using only data from cognitive tests and MRI scans, is much more sensitive than current approaches at predicting whether someone will progress from mild symptoms to Alzheimer’s – and if so, whether this progress will be fast or slow.

“This has the potential to significantly improve patient wellbeing, showing us which people need closest care, while removing the anxiety for those patients we predict will remain stable. At a time of intense pressure on healthcare resources, this will also help remove the need for unnecessary invasive and costly diagnostic tests.”

While the researchers tested the algorithm on data from a research cohort, it was validated using independent data that included almost 900 individuals who attended memory clinics in the UK and Singapore. In the UK, patients were recruited through the Quantiative MRI in NHS Memory Clinics Study (QMIN-MC) led by study co-author Dr Timothy Rittman at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trusts (CPFT).

The researchers say this shows it should be applicable in a real-world patient, clinical setting.

Dr Ben Underwood, Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at CPFT and assistant professor at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, said: “Memory problems are common as we get older. In clinic I see how uncertainty about whether these might be the first signs of dementia can cause a lot of worry for people and their families, as well as being frustrating for doctors who would much prefer to give definitive answers. The fact that we might be able to reduce this uncertainty with information we already have is exciting and is likely to become even more important as new treatments emerge.”

Professor Kourtzi said: “AI models are only as good as the data they are trained on. To make sure ours has the potential to be adopted in a healthcare setting, we trained and tested it on routinely-collected data not just from research cohorts, but from patients in actual memory clinics. This shows it will be generalisable to a real-world setting.”

The team now hope to extend their model to other forms of dementia, such as vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia, and using different types of data, such as markers from blood tests.

Professor Kourtzi added: “If we’re going to tackle the growing health challenge presented by dementia, we will need better tools for identifying and intervening at the earliest possible stage. Our vision is to scale up our AI tool to help clinicians assign the right person at the right time to the right diagnostic and treatment pathway. Our tool can help match the right patients to clinical trials, accelerating new drug discovery for disease modifying treatments.”

This work was in collaboration with a cross-disciplinary team including Professor Peter Tino at the University of Birmingham and Professor Christopher Chen at the National University of Singapore. It was funded by Wellcome, the Royal Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation Diagnostics Accelerator, the Alan Turing Institute, and the National Institute for Health and Care Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

Reference
Lee, LY & Vaghari, D et al. Robust and interpretable AI-guided marker for early dementia prediction in real-world clinical settings. eClinMed; 12 July 2024; DOI: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2024.102725

Cambridge scientists have developed an artificially-intelligent tool capable of predicting in four cases out of five whether people with early signs of dementia will remain stable or develop Alzheimer’s disease.

We’ve created a tool which is much more sensitive than current approaches at predicting whether someone will progress from mild symptoms to Alzheimer’sZoe KourtziYuichiro Chino (Getty Images)Brain on molecular structure, circuitry, and programming code background


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Yes

Cambridge experts bust myths about family, sex, marriage and work in English history

News from the University of Cambridge - Thu, 11/07/2024 - 00:01

Sex before marriage was unusual in the pastMyth! In some periods, over half of all brides were already pregnant when they got married.

The rich have always outlived the poor Myth! Before the 20th century the evidence for a survival advantage of wealth is mixed. In England, babies of agricultural labourers (the poorest workers) had a better chance of reaching their first birthday than infants in wealthy families, and life expectancy was no higher for aristocrats than for the rest of the population. These patterns contrast strongly with national and international patterns today, where wealth confers a clear survival advantage everywhere and at all ages.

In the past people (particularly women) married in their teensMyth! In reality, women married in their mid-20s, men around 2.5 years older. Apart from a few decades in the early 1800s, the only time since 1550 that the average age of first marriage for women fell below 24 was during the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

These are just some of the stubborn myths busted by researchers from The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (Campop). Their Top of the CamPops blog (www.campop.geog.cam.ac.uk/blog) goes live on 11th July 2024 with new posts being added every week. The blog will reveal ‘60 things you didn't know about family, marriage, work, and death since the middle ages’.

The initiative marks the influential research group’s 60th anniversary. Founded in 1964 by Peter Laslett and Tony Wrigley to conduct data-driven research into family and demographic history, Campop has contributed to hundreds of research articles and books, and made the history of England’s population the best understood in the world.

Earlier this year, the group made headlines when Professor Leigh Shaw-Taylor revealed that the Industrial Revolution in Britain started 100 years earlier than traditionally assumed.

Professor Alice Reid, Director of Campop and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, said: “Assumptions about lives, families and work in the past continue to influence attitudes today. But many of these are myths. Over the last 60 years, our researchers have gone through huge amounts of data to set the record straight. This blog shares some of our most surprising and important discoveries for a broad audience.”

Myth: Until the 20th century, few people lived beyond the age of 40. Reality: Actually, people who survived the first year or two of life had a reasonable chance of living until 70.

Myth: Childbirth was really dangerous for women in the past, and carried a high chance of death. Reality: The risk of death during or following childbirth was certainly higher than it is now, but was far lower than many people suppose. 

Myth: Families in the past generally lived in extended, multigenerational households. Reality: Young couples generally formed a new household on marriage, reducing the prevalence of multi-generational households. As today, the living circumstances of old people varied. Many continued to live as couples or on their own, some lived with their children, whilst very few lived in institutions.

Myth: Marital titles for women arose from men’s desire to distinguish available women from those who were already ‘owned’Reality: Both ‘miss’ and ‘mrs’ are shortened forms of ‘mistress’, which was a status designation indicating a gentlewoman or employer. Mrs had no necessary connection to marriage until c.1900 (and even then, there was an exception for upper servants). 

Myth: Famine and starvation were common in the past. Reality: Not in England! Here, the poor laws and a ‘low pressure’ demographic system provided a safety net. This helps to explain why hunger and famine are absent from English fairy tales but common in the folklore of most European societies.

Myth: Women working (outside the home) is a late 20th century phenomenon. Reality: Most women in the past engaged in gainful employment, both before and after marriage 

Myth: Women take their husbands’ surnames because of patriarchal norms. Reality: The practice of taking a husband’s surname developed in England from the peculiarly restrictive rule of ‘coverture’ in marital property. Elsewhere in Europe, where the husband managed the wife’s property but did not own it, women retained their birth names until c.1900. 

Myth: People rarely moved far from their place of birth in the past. Reality: Migration was actually quite common – a village population could change more than half its members from one decade to the next. Rural to urban migration enabled the growth of cities, and since people migrated almost exclusively to find work, the sex ratio of cities can indicate what kind of work was available.

Campop’s Professor Amy Erickson said: “People, not least politicians, often refer to history to nudge us to do something, or stop doing something. Not all of this history is accurate, and repeating myths about sex, marriage, family and work can be quite harmful. They can put unfair pressure on people, create guilt and raise false expectations, while also misrepresenting the lives of our ancestors.”

On World Population Day, University of Cambridge researchers bust some of the biggest myths about life in England since the Middle Ages, challenging assumptions about everything from sex before marriage to migration and the health/wealth gap.

Assumptions about lives, families and work in the past continue to influence attitudes today. But many of these are myths.Alice ReidBlack and white photograph of a family lined up against a wall in E. W. Hope, Report on the physical welfare of mothers and children (Liverpool, The Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, 1917), volume 1


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Yes

AI able to identify drug-resistant typhoid-like infection from microscopy images in matter of hours

News from the University of Cambridge - Mon, 08/07/2024 - 08:00

Antimicrobial resistance is an increasing global health issue that means many infections are becoming difficult to treat, with fewer treatment options available. It even raises the spectre of some infections becoming untreatable in the near future.

One of the challenges facing healthcare workers is the ability to distinguish rapidly between organisms that can be treated with first-line drugs and those that are resistant to treatment. Conventional testing can take several days, requiring bacteria to be cultured, tested against various antimicrobial treatments, and analysed by a laboratory technician or by machine. This delay often results in patients being treated with an inappropriate drug, which can lead to more serious outcomes and, potentially, further drive drug resistance.

In research published in Nature Communications, a team led by researchers in Professor Stephen Baker’s Lab at the University of Cambridge developed a machine-learning tool capable of identifying from microscopy images Salmonella Typhimurium bacteria that are resistant to the first-line antibiotic ciprofloxacin – even without testing the bacteria against the drug.

S. Typhimurium causes gastrointestinal illness and typhoid-like illness in severe cases, whose symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, nausea, abdominal pain, and constipation or diarrhoea. In severe cases, it can be life threatening. While infections can be treated with antibiotics, the bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to a number of antibiotics, making treatment more complicated.

The team used high-resolution microscopy to examine S. Typhimurium isolates exposed to increasing concentrations of ciprofloxacin and identified the five most important imaging features for distinguishing between resistant and susceptible isolates.

They then trained and tested machine-learning algorithm to recognise these features using imaging data from 16 samples.

The algorithm was able to correctly predict in each case whether or not bacteria were susceptible or resistant to ciprofloxacin without the need for the bacteria to be exposed to the drug. This was the case for isolates cultured for just six hours, compared to the usual 24 hours to culture a sample in the presence of antibiotic.

Dr Tuan-Anh Tran, who worked on this research while a PhD student at the University of Oxford and is now based at the University of Cambridge, said: “S. Typhimurium bacteria that are resistant to ciprofloxacin have several notable differences to those still susceptible to the antibiotic. While an expert human operator might be able to identify some of these, on their own they wouldn't be enough to confidently distinguish resistant and susceptible bacteria.

“The beauty of the machine learning model is that it can identify resistant bacteria based on a few subtle features on microscopy images that human eyes cannot detect.”

In order for a sample to be analysed using this approach, it would still be necessary to isolate the bacteria from a sample – for example a blood, urine or stool sample. However, because the bacteria do not need to be tested against ciprofloxacin, this means the whole process could be reduced from several days to a matter of hours.

While there are limitations to how practical and cost effective this particular approach would be, the team says it demonstrates in principle how powerful artificial intelligence could be in helping the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

Dr Sushmita Sridhar, who initiated this project while a PhD student in the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge and is now a postdoc at the University of New Mexico and Harvard School of Public Health, said: “Given that this approach uses single cell resolution imaging, it isn’t yet a solution that could be readily deployed everywhere. But it shows real promise that by capturing just a few parameters about the shape and structure of the bacteria, it can give us enough information to predict drug resistance with relative ease.”

The team now aims to work on larger collections of bacteria to create a more robust experimental set that could speed up the identification process even more and allow them to identify resistance to ciprofloxacin and other antibiotics in a number of different species of bacteria.

Sridhar added: “What would be really important, particularly for a clinical context, would be to be able to take a complex sample – for example blood or urine or sputum – and identify susceptibility and resistance directly from that. That's a much more complicated problem and one that really hasn't been solved at all, even in clinical diagnostics in a hospital. If we could find a way of doing this, we could reduce the time taken to identify drug resistance and at a much lower cost. That could be truly transformative.”

The research was funded by Wellcome.

Reference
Tran, TA & Sridhar, S et al. Combining machine learning with high-content imaging to infer ciprofloxacin susceptibility in isolates of Salmonella Typhimurium. Nat Comms; 13 June 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-49433-4

Artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to identify drug resistant infections, significantly reducing the time taken for a correct diagnosis, Cambridge researchers have shown. The team showed that an algorithm could be trained to identify drug-resistant bacteria correctly from microscopy images alone.

The beauty of the machine learning model is that it can identify resistant bacteria based on a few subtle features on microscopy images that human eyes cannot detectTuan-Anh TranRocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIHColour-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella Typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Scientists map how deadly bacteria evolved to become epidemic

News from the University of Cambridge - Thu, 04/07/2024 - 19:00

P. aeruginosa is responsible for over 500,000 deaths per year around the world, of which over 300,000 are associated with antimicrobial resistance (AMR). People with conditions such as COPD (smoking-related lung damage), cystic fibrosis (CF), and non-CF bronchiectasis, are particularly susceptible.

How P. aeruginosa evolved from an environmental organism into a specialised human pathogen was not previously known. To investigate this, an international team led by scientists at the University of Cambridge examined DNA data from almost 10,000 samples taken from infected individuals, animals, and environments around the world. Their results are published today in Science

By mapping the data, the team was able to create phylogenetic trees – ‘family trees’ – that show how the bacteria from the samples are related to each other. Remarkably, they found that almost seven in ten infections are caused by just 21 genetic clones, or ‘branches’ of the family tree, that have rapidly evolved (by acquiring new genes from neighbouring bacteria) and then spread globally over the last 200 years. This spread occurred most likely as a result of people beginning to live in densely-populated areas, where air pollution made our lungs more susceptible to infection and where there were more opportunities for infections to spread.

These epidemic clones have an intrinsic preference for infecting particular types of patients, with some favouring CF patients and other non-CF individuals. It turns out that the bacteria can exploit a previously unknown immune defect in people with CF, allowing them to survive within macrophages. Macrophages are cells that ‘eat’ invading organisms, breaking them down and preventing the infection from spreading. But a previously-unknown flaw in the immune systems of CF patients means that once the macrophage ‘swallows’ P. aeruginosa, it is unable to get rid of it.

Having infected the lungs, these bacteria then evolve in different ways to become even more specialised for a particular lung environment. The result is that certain clones can be transmitted within CF patients and other clones within non-CF patients, but almost never between CF and non-CF patient groups.  

Professor Andres Floto, Director of the UK Cystic Fibrosis Innovation Hub at the University of Cambridge and Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and senior author of the study said: “Our research on Pseudomonas has taught us new things about the biology of cystic fibrosis and revealed important ways we might be able to improve immunity against invading bacteria in this and potentially other conditions.

“From a clinical perspective, this study has revealed important information about Pseudomonas.  The focus has always been on how easily this infection can spread between CF patients, but we’ve shown that it can spread with worrying ease between other patients, too. This has very important consequences for infection control in hospitals, where it’s not uncommon for an infected individual to be on an open ward with someone potentially very vulnerable.

“We are incredibly lucky at Royal Papworth Hospital where we have single rooms and have developed and evaluated a new air-handling system to reduce the amount of airborne bacteria and protect all patients.”

Dr Aaron Weimann from the Victor Phillip Dahdaleh Heart & Lung Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, and first author on the study, said: “It’s remarkable to see the speed with which these bacteria evolve and can become epidemic and how they can specialise for a particular lung environment. We really need systematic, pro-active screening of all at risk patient groups to detect and hopefully prevent the emergence of more epidemic clones.”

The research was funded by Wellcome and the UK Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

Reference
Weimann, A et al. Evolution and host-specific adaptation of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Science; 4 July 2024; DOI: 10.1126/science.adi0908

Pseudomonas aeruginosa – an environmental bacteria that can cause devastating multidrug-resistant infections, particularly in people with underlying lung conditions – evolved rapidly and then spread globally over the last 200 years, probably driven by changes in human behaviour, a new study has found.

It’s remarkable to see the speed with which these bacteria evolve and can become epidemic and how they can specialise for a particular lung environmentAaron Weimannengin akyurtA man with a respirator on his face


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Genetic study points to oxytocin as possible treatment for obesity and postnatal depression

News from the University of Cambridge - Tue, 02/07/2024 - 16:00

Obesity and postnatal depression are significant global health problems. Postnatal depression affects more than one in 10 women within a year of giving birth and is linked to an increased risk of suicide, which accounts for as many as one in five maternal deaths in high income countries. Meanwhile, obesity has more than doubled in adults since 1990 and quadrupled in adolescents, according to the World Health Organization.

While investigating two boys from different families with severe obesity, anxiety, autism, and behavioural problems triggered by sounds or smells, a team led by scientists at the University of Cambridge, UK, and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, USA, discovered that the boys were missing a single gene, known as TRPC5, which sits on the X chromosome.

Further investigation revealed that both boys inherited the gene deletion from their mothers, who were missing the gene on one of their X chromosomes. The mothers also had obesity, but in addition had experienced postnatal depression.

To test if it was the TRPC5 gene that was causing the problems in the boys and their mothers, the researchers turned to animal models, genetically-engineering mice with a defective version of the gene (Trpc5 in mice).

Male mice with this defective gene displayed the same problems as the boys, including weight gain, anxiety, a dislike of social interactions, and aggressive behaviour. Female mice displayed the same behaviours, but when they became mothers, they also displayed depressive behaviour and impaired maternal care. Interestingly, male mice and female mice who were not mothers but carried the mutation did not show depression-like behaviour.

Dr Yong Xu, Associate Director for Basic Sciences at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, said: “What we saw in those mice was quite remarkable. They displayed very similar behaviours to those seen in people missing the TRPC5 gene, which in mothers included signs of depression and a difficulty caring for their babies. This shows us that this gene is causing these behaviours.”

TRPC5 is one of a family of genes that are involved in detecting sensory signals, such as heat, taste and touch. This particular gene acts on a pathway in the hypothalamus region of the brain, where it is known to control appetite.

When the researchers looked in more detail at this brain region, they discovered that TRPC5 acts on oxytocin neurons – nerve cells that produce the hormone oxytocin, often nicknamed the ‘love hormone’ because of its release in response to displays of affection, emotion and bonding.

Deleting the gene from these oxytocin neurons led to otherwise healthy mice showing similar signs of anxiety, overeating and impaired sociability, and, in the case of mothers, postnatal depression. Restoring the gene in these neurons reduced body weight and symptoms of anxiety and postnatal depression.

In addition to acting on oxytocin neurons, the team showed that TRPC5 also acts on so-called POMC neurons, which have been known for some time to play an important role in regulating weight. Children in whom the POMC gene is not working properly often have an insatiable appetite and gain weight from an early age.

Professor Sadaf Farooqi from the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge said: “There's a reason why people lacking TRPC5 develop all of these conditions. We’ve known for a long time that the hypothalamus plays a key role in regulating ‘instinctive behaviours’ – which enable humans and animals to survive – such as looking for food, social interaction, the flight or fight response, and caring for their infants. Our work shows that TRPC5 acts on oxytocin neurons in the hypothalamus to play a critical role in regulating our instincts.”

While deletions of the TRPC5 gene are rare, an analysis of DNA samples from around 500,000 individuals in UK Biobank revealed 369 people – around three-quarters of whom were women – that carried variants of the gene and had a higher-than-average body mass index.

The researchers say their findings suggests that restoring oxytocin could help treat people with missing or defective TRPC5 genes, and potentially mothers experiencing postnatal depression.

Professor Farooqi said: “While some genetic conditions such as TRPC5 deficiency are very rare, they teach us important lessons about how the body works. In this instance, we have made a breakthrough in understanding postnatal depression, a serious health problem about which very little is known despite many decades of research. And importantly, it may point to oxytocin as a possible treatment for some mothers with this condition.”

There is already evidence in animals that the oxytocin system is involved in both depression and in maternal care and there have been small trials into the use of oxytocin as a treatment. The team say their work provides direct proof of oxytocin’s role, which will be crucial in supporting bigger, multi-centre trials. 

Professor Farooqi added: “This research reminds us that many behaviours which we assume are entirely under our control have a strong basis in biology, whether that’s our eating behaviour, anxiety or postnatal depression. We need to be more understanding and sympathetic towards people who suffer with these conditions.” 

This work was supported by Wellcome, the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, Botnar Fondation and Bernard Wolfe Health Neuroscience Endowment.

Reference
Li, Y, Cacciottolo, TM & Yin, N. Loss of Transient Receptor Potential Channel 5 Causes Obesity and Postpartum Depression. Cell; 2 July 2024; DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2024.06.001

Scientists have identified a gene which, when missing or impaired, can cause obesity, behavioural problems and, in mothers, postnatal depression. The discovery, reported today in Cell, may have wider implications for the treatment of postnatal depression, with a study in mice suggesting that oxytocin may alleviate symptoms.

This research reminds us that many behaviours which we assume are entirely under our control have a strong basis in biology. We need to be more understanding and sympathetic towards people who suffer with these conditionsSadaf FarooqiOlli Turho (Getty Images)Illustration of a tired African American mother crying


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Yes

Cutting-edge genomic test can improve care of children with cancer

News from the University of Cambridge - Tue, 02/07/2024 - 10:00

The study, published today in Nature Medicine, is the first time that the impact of using whole genome sequencing in current NHS practice has been assessed. It was led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, Wellcome Sanger Institute and Great Ormond Street Hospital.

The team analysed the use of routine genome sequencing, through the NHS Genomic Medicine Service, at Cambridge University Hospitals, where such tests are given to all children with solid tumours, and at Great Ormond Street Hospital, which provides the test for childhood leukaemia.

The researchers found that cancer sequencing gave new insights that improved the immediate clinical care of seven per cent of children, while also providing all the benefits of current standard tests.

Furthermore, in 29 per cent of cases, genome sequencing provided additional information that helped clinicians better understand the tumours of individual children and informed future management. For example, uncovering unexpected mutations that increase future cancer risk leading to preventative measures being taken, such as regular screening.

Overall, whole genome sequencing provides additional, relevant data, about childhood cancer that is useful for informing practice. The results also show that it can reduce the number of tests required, and therefore, researchers suggest it should be provided to all children impacted by cancer.

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) is a single test that provides a complete readout of the entire genetic code of the tumour and identifies every single cancer-causing mutation. Comparatively, traditional standard-of-care tests only look at tiny regions of the cancer genome, and therefore many more tests are often required per child.

Professor Sam Behjati, senior author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge University Hospitals, and the University of Cambridge: “Whole genome sequencing provides the gold standard, most comprehensive and cutting edge view of cancer. What was once a research tool that the Sanger Institute started exploring over a decade ago, has now become a clinical test that I can offer to my patients. This is a powerful example of the genomic data revolution of healthcare that enables us to provide better, individualised care for children with cancer.”

NHS England is one of the few health services in the world that has a national initiative, through the Genomic Medicine Service, offering universal genome sequencing to every child with suspected cancer. However, due to multiple barriers and a lack of evidence from real-time practice supporting its use, whole cancer genome sequencing is not yet widespread practice1.  

The latest study looked at 281 children with suspected cancer across the two units. The team analysed the clinical and diagnostic information across these units and assessed how genome sequencing affected the care of children with cancer.

They found that WGS changed the clinical management in seven per cent of cases, improving care for 20 children, by providing information that is not possible to acquire from standard of care tests.

Additionally, WGS faithfully reproduced every one of the 738 standard of care tests utilised in these 281 cases, suggesting that a single WGS test could replace the multiple tests that the NHS currently uses if this is shown to be economically viable.

WGS provides a detailed insight into rare cancers, for example, by revealing novel variants of cancer. The widespread use of genome sequencing will enable clinicians to access these insights for individual patients while simultaneously building a powerful shared genomic resource for research into new treatment targets, possible prevention strategies, and the origins of cancer.

Dr Jack Bartram, senior author from Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and the North Thames Genomic Medicine Service, said: “Childhood cancer treatment is mostly guided by genetic features of the tumour, and therefore an in-depth genetic understanding of cancer is crucial in guiding our practice. Our research shows that whole genome sequencing delivers tangible benefits above existing tests, providing better care for our patients. We hope this research really highlights why whole genome sequencing should be delivered as part of routine clinical care to all children with suspected cancer.”

Professor Behjati at the Department of Paediatrics, University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

This research was supported in part by Wellcome, the Pessoa de Araujo family and the National Institute for Health and Care Research.

Reference
A. Hodder, S. Leiter, J. Kennedy, et al. Benefits for children with suspected cancer from routine whole genome sequencing. Nature Medicine; 2 July 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41591-024-03056-w

Adapted from a press release from Wellcome Sanger Institute

Whole genome sequencing has improved clinical care of some children with cancer in England by informing individual patient care. Research published today supports the efforts to provide genome sequencing to all children with cancer and shows how it can improve the management of care in real-time, providing more benefits than all current tests combined.

This is a powerful example of the genomic data revolution of healthcare that enables us to provide better, individualised care for children with cancerSam BehjatiFatCamera (Getty Images)Boy Battling With CancerEddie’s story

When he was six-years old, Eddie began to have regular low-grade fevers that seemed to affect him a lot. Even though early tests came back normal, the fevers became more frequent and his Mum, Harri, noticed that on one or two occasions he seemed out of breath while doing small things like reading a book.  A chest x-ray revealed a huge mass on Eddie’s chest, and he was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL). Eddie was immediately transferred to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) to begin treatment.

“I know it sounds like a cliché, but you really don’t think it will ever happen to your child. It felt like our world fell out from under us. During those first few weeks I remember wondering if this was it, I was taking so many photos of us together and wondering if it could be the last,” said Harri, Eddie's mum.

Eddie was put onto a treatment plan that included eight months of intense chemotherapy, followed by two and a half years of maintenance treatment. As part of his treatment at GOSH Eddie’s family were also offered WGS to identify any cancer-causing changes.

“When we were offered whole genome sequencing, we didn’t even hesitate. I wanted to have all the information, I wanted to have some peace of mind for the future and know that Eddie was having the right care throughout. I also wanted to make sure that Eddie’s brother, Leo, wasn’t any more likely to get T-ALL because Eddie had,” said Harri.

On his seventh birthday, Eddie’s family received the call to say he was in remission. Now, at nine years-old Eddie is nearing the end of his maintenance treatment and is doing well.

“We are trying to live each day, and this experience has really changed our outlook on life. We always try to take the positive from every situation. Words can’t explain what Eddie has been through this past three years but he has come out the other side as a sensitive, confident, and smart young man.  He is mature beyond his years and he has been involved in everything, including decisions about his treatment. To say we are proud, doesn’t even come close to how we truly feel about him,” said Harri.

Their personal experience of WGS was so important on their journey that they provided support for this research.

Harri added: “I always say that having a child with a cancer diagnosis feels like you’ve been standing on a trap door all these years without knowing. Then after the diagnosis, you are in freefall. And even when things are stable again, you are constantly aware that the trap door is still there and there is a possibility it could open again at any time. Having access to whole genome sequencing gave us some sense of reassurance, it could have informed us about targeted treatments and gave us some insight into future risk. We wanted to support something that had the potential to have a real impact on treatment and outcomes so when we heard about this research project and its potential, it was very exciting that we could be a small part of it. It helped us turn something so devastating into something positive and we just hope that this research helps.”


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Yes

Cambridge spin-out’s sportscar prototype takes ultra-fast charging out of the lab and onto the road

News from the University of Cambridge - Mon, 01/07/2024 - 15:03

In addition to ultra-fast charging times, the batteries developed by Nyobolt – which was spun out of Professor Dame Clare Grey’s lab in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry in 2019 – do not suffer from the degradation issues associated with lithium-ion batteries.

Tests of the first running Nyobolt EV prototype will be used to validate the company’s battery performance in a high-performance environment.

Cambridge-based Nyobolt has used its patented carbon and metal oxide anode materials, low-impedance cell design, integrated power electronics and software controls to create power-dense battery and charging systems. These support the electrification of applications such as heavy-duty off-highway trucks, EVs, robotics and consumer devices that demand high power and quick recharge cycles.

Initial in-vehicle testing using 350kW (800V) DC fast chargers confirmed that the Nyobolt EV’s battery can be charged from 10 per cent to 80 per cent in four minutes 37 seconds – with a full charge enabling the prototype to achieve a range of 155 miles. That is twice the speed of most of the fastest-charging vehicles today.

Independent testing of the technology confirmed that Nyobolt’s longer-lasting and more sustainable batteries can achieve over 4,000 fast charge cycles, or 600,000 miles, maintaining over 80 per cent battery capacity retention. This is many multiples higher than the warranties of much larger EV batteries on the road today.

“Nyobolt’s low impedance cells ensure we can offer sustainability, stretching out the battery’s usable life for up to 600,000 miles in the case of our technology demonstrator,” said company co-founder and CEO, Dr Sai Shivareddy.

The battery pack in the Nyobolt EV prototype not only adds miles faster but the compact battery pack size enables energy-efficient electric vehicles that are cheaper to buy and run, and crucially use fewer resources to manufacture.

“Nyobolt is removing the obstacle of slow and inconvenient charging, making electrification appealing and accessible to those who don’t have the time for lengthy charging times or space for a home charger,” said Shane Davies, Nyobolt’s director of vehicle battery systems.

Nyobolt’s battery assembly plans could be in production at low volume within a year, ramping to 1,000 packs in 2025. Nyobolt’s flexible manufacturing model enables volumes of up to two million cells per year.

Nyobolt’s technology builds on a decade of battery research led by Grey and Shivareddy, who invented cutting-edge supercapacitors. Key to the company’s ability to offer ultra-fast charging without impacting battery life is its low-impedance cells that generate less heat, making it easier to manage such high-power levels during charging. Its anode materials in lithium-ion battery cells allow for a faster transfer of electrons between the anode and cathode.

Nyobolt is in conversation with a further eight vehicle manufacturers about adopting its technology. Alongside automotive applications, Nyobolt’s fast-charging technology is set to be used this year in robotics.

“Our extensive research here in the UK and in the US has unlocked a new battery technology that is ready and scalable right now,” said Shivareddy. “We are enabling the electrification of new products and services currently considered inviable or impossible. Creating real-world demonstrators, such as the Nyobolt EV, underlines both our readiness and commitment to making the industries see change is possible.”

Adapted from a Nyobolt media release.

Nyobolt, a University of Cambridge spin-out company, has demonstrated its ultra-fast charging batteries in an electric sportscar prototype, going from 10% to 80% charge in under five minutes, twice the speed of the fastest-charging vehicles currently on the road.

NyoboltNyobolt EV prototype


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Yes

Largest ever genetic study of age of puberty in girls shows links with weight gain

News from the University of Cambridge - Mon, 01/07/2024 - 10:00

In the largest study of its kind to date, an international team led by researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge, studied the DNA of around 800,000 women from Europe, North America, China, Japan, and Korea.

Published today in Nature Genetics, the researchers found more than 1,000 variants – small changes in DNA – that influence the age of first menstrual period. Around 600 of these variants were observed for the first time.

The age at which girls hit puberty and start having periods normally occurs between ages 10 to 15, though this has been getting earlier and earlier in recent decades. The reasons for this are not fully understood. Early puberty is linked with increased risk of a number of diseases in later life, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. Later puberty on the other hand, has been linked to improved health in adulthood and a longer lifespan.

Just under half (45%) of the discovered genetic variants affected puberty indirectly, by increasing weight gain in early childhood.

Corresponding author Professor John Perry said: “Many of the genes we’ve found influence early puberty by first accelerating weight gain in infants and young children. This can then lead to potentially serious health problems in later life, as having earlier puberty leads to higher rates of overweight and obesity in adulthood.”

Previous work by the team – together with researchers at Cambridge’s MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit – showed that a receptor in the brain, known as MC3R, detects the nutritional state of the body and regulates the timing of puberty and rate of growth in children, providing a mechanism by which this occurs. Other identified genes appeared to be acting in the brain to control the release of reproductive hormones.

The scientists also analysed rare genetic variants that are carried by very few people, but which can have large effects on puberty. For example, they found that one in 3,800 women carry variants in the gene ZNF483, which caused these women to experience puberty on average, 1.3 years later.

Dr Katherine Kentistou, lead study investigator, added: “This is the first time we’ve ever been able to analyse rare genetic variants at this scale. We have identified six genes which all profoundly affect the timing of puberty. While these genes were discovered in girls, they often have the same impact on the timing of puberty in boys. The new mechanisms we describe could form the basis of interventions for individuals at risk of early puberty and obesity.”

The researchers also generated a genetic score that predicted whether a girl was likely to hit puberty very early or very late. Girls with the highest 1% of this genetic score were 11 times more likely to have extremely delayed puberty – that is, after age 15 years. On the other hand, girls with the lowest 1% genetic score were 14 times more likely to have extremely early puberty – before age 10.

Senior author and paediatrician Professor Ken Ong said: “In the future, we may be able to use these genetic scores in the clinic to identify those girls whose puberty will come very early or very late. The NHS is already trialling whole genome sequencing at birth, and this would give us the genetic information we need to make this possible.

“Children who present in the NHS with very early puberty – at age seven or eight – are offered puberty blockers to delay it. But age of puberty is a continuum, and if they miss this threshold, there’s currently nothing we have to offer. We need other interventions, whether that’s oral medication or a behavioural approach, to help. This could be important for their health when they grow up.”

The research was supported by the Medical Research Council and included data from the UK Biobank.

Reference
Kentistou, KA & Kaisinger, LR, et al. Understanding the genetic complexity of puberty timing across the allele frequency spectrum. Nat Gen; 1 July 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41588-024-01798-4

Genes can indirectly influence the age at which girls have their first period by accelerating weight gain in childhood, a known risk factor for early puberty, a Cambridge-led study has found. Other genes can directly affect age of puberty, some with profound effects.

Many of the genes we’ve found influence early puberty by first accelerating weight gain in infants and young children. This can then lead to potentially serious health problems in later lifeJohn PerryHalfpoint Images (Getty Images)Portrait of a young girl writing in her diary


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Yes

No evidence that England’s new ‘biodiversity boost’ planning policy will help birds or butterflies

News from the University of Cambridge - Fri, 28/06/2024 - 05:01

From 2024, the UK’s Environment Act requires planning applications to demonstrate an overall biodiversity net gain of at least 10% as calculated using a new statutory biodiversity metric.

The researchers trialled the metric by using it to calculate the biodiversity value of 24 sites across England. These sites have all been monitored over the long-term, allowing the team to compare biodiversity species data with results from the metric.

Plant biodiversity at the sites matched values produced using the metric, but bird and butterfly biodiversity did not.

This means there’s no evidence that a 10% net biodiversity gain calculated using the statutory biodiversity metric will translate into real-life gains for birds and butterflies, without additional conservation management.

This is the first comprehensive study of the performance of Defra’s statutory biodiversity metric across England. The results are published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Plants, birds and butterflies have been comprehensively surveyed in England over many years, and are used as indicators for the national state of nature.

The researchers say the metric must be improved to better capture the intricacies of the different species within an ecosystem.

“The statutory biodiversity metric is a really important opportunity, and has potential to direct a lot of money into biodiversity conservation from developers. It’s the responsibility of conservationists and policy makers to ensure that it provides a reliable indication of nature’s diversity,” said Dr Cicely Marshall in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, first author of the paper.

She added: “At the moment the metric does capture plant diversity quite well, but it doesn’t reflect the intricacies of ecosystems – species like birds and butterflies use habitats in very different ways.”

The metric, created by the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), was introduced as part of the Environment Act with its legally binding agenda to deliver “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.” It scores the condition and distinctiveness of a piece of land to calculate its biodiversity value in standardised ‘biodiversity units.’

This allows developers to project biodiversity losses and gains across a site, so they can ensure the development achieves an overall minimum 10% biodiversity gain. Landowners can use the tool to calculate the biodiversity value of their land.

Marshall, who is also a Research Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, said: “Many property developments have been very detrimental to nature in the past, and it’s exciting that England now has a requirement for developers to leave nature in a better state than they found it.

“We hope our study will contribute to improving the way nature’s value is calculated, to make the most of this valuable opportunity for nature recovery.”

The results of the study have been used to make recommendations to Defra and Natural England to help improve the metric.

The metric uses habitat as a proxy for biodiversity, scoring habitats’ intrinsic distinctiveness and current condition. Plans for biodiversity gain can involve replacing lost habitat with similar habitat - the researchers say that nature recovery could be improved if the particular species and habitats impacted by a development were also taken into account in this process.

There can be huge differences in biodiversity across habitats like croplands, for example, and these aren’t captured by the metric which assigns all cropland the same condition score. Conventional farms that regularly use artificial pesticides and herbicides have much lower biodiversity than organic farms that do not.

“There are great differences in the ecological value of cropland depending on how it’s managed, but the metric gives all cropland a low biodiversity score. It would be nice to see these differences reflected,” said Marshall.

The UK is committed to building 300,000 homes a year by mid-2020, so the net biodiversity gain requirement is expected to generate a market for biodiversity credits worth an estimated £135m-£274m annually – substantially increasing funding for nature conservation in England.

The research was funded by the Ecological Continuity Trust.

Reference: Marshall, C. 'England’s statutory biodiversity metric enhances plant, but not bird nor butterfly biodiversity'. Journal of Applied Ecology, June 2024. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.14697

A new legal requirement for developers to demonstrate a biodiversity boost in planning applications could make a more meaningful impact on nature recovery if improvements are made to the way nature’s value is calculated, say researchers at the University of Cambridge.

We hope our study will contribute to improving the way nature’s value is calculated, to make the most of this valuable opportunity for nature recovery.Cicely MarshallCicely MarshallResearchers assess woodland condition at Alice Holt Forest


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YesLicence type: Attribution-Noncommerical

Simon Baron-Cohen wins MRC Millennium Medal for transformative research into autism and neurodiversity

News from the University of Cambridge - Thu, 20/06/2024 - 08:00

Sir Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Trinity College. He is Director of the Autism Research Centre, which he set up in 1997. He has published over 750 peer reviewed scientific articles and has made contributions to many aspects of autism research. In 2021, he received a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours list for his services to autism.

One of his earliest MRC grants, in 1996, was to investigate if autism could be diagnosed in babies as young as 18 months old, and his team showed that it can. Ideally, an early diagnosis should lead to the right support, so that a child has the best opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Baron-Cohen has drawn attention to the reality that a lot of autistic people do not receive their diagnosis in early childhood. In fact, many are not diagnosed until late childhood, or even adulthood. This means they are left unsupported and feeling different, but with no explanation. As a result, autistic people can end up feeling like they do not fit in, and may experience exclusion or bullying by their peer group. They can feel ashamed when they’re not coping in a mainstream classroom.

He argues that the reason they are struggling is because the mainstream educational setting was designed for non-autistic people. This can lead to a gradual deterioration in their mental health. Many underachieve academically and only 15% of autistic adults are employed. Most worryingly, one in four autistic adults have planned or attempted suicide. He said “Autistic people are being failed by our society”.

In 2017 Baron-Cohen was invited by the United Nations to give a keynote lecture on Autism Acceptance Day. He described how autistic people are excluded from many basic human rights. These include the right to education, the right to health services, the right to dignity, and the right to employment.

In an effort to change this, Baron-Cohen created a charity called the Autism Centre of Excellence (ACE) at Cambridge. The charity is science-led and aims to put the science into the hands of policymakers, so there’s no delay in translating policy-relevant findings.

Alongside his applied research, Baron-Cohen’s team also conducts basic research. Autism starts prenatally and is partly but not completely genetic. For decades it was unclear what other factors might contribute to the cause of autism. Over the past 20 years Baron-Cohen made two big discoveries which have helped understand what causes autism. First, his team found elevated levels of prenatal androgens (sex hormones such as testosterone) in pregnancies that later resulted in autism. Second, they found that prenatal oestrogens (another group of sex hormones which are synthesised from androgens) levels were also elevated in pregnancies resulting in autism. 

Autism is an example of neurodiversity. Autistic individuals’ brains develop differently, from before birth. Some of these differences result in disability, for example, in social skills and communication. But others result in strengths or talents. For example, many autistic people have excellent memory for facts and excellent attention to detail. And many are strongly attracted to patterns. Baron-Cohen’s recent book The Pattern Seekers celebrates autistic people’s different minds. In many environments, such skills are assets. In his research group, he employs neurodivergent individuals.

Baron-Cohen will receive the prestigious medal, specially created by The Royal Mint, and will be listed amongst the most highly influential and impactful researchers in the UK. He will deliver a lecture about his research, and his achievements will be celebrated at an Awards Ceremony on 20 June 2024 in the Law Society where he will receive the medal.

On receiving the news that he was to be awarded the MRC Millennium Medal, Baron-Cohen said: “This is the result of team work and I am fortunate to be surrounded by a talented team of scientists. I hope this Medal shines a light on how autistic people need a lot more support, from the earliest point, to lead fulfilling lives.”

The UKRI Medical Research Council (MRC) in the UK will today present the MRC Millennium Medal 2023 to Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, in recognition of his pioneering MRC-funded research into the prenatal sex steroid theory of autism, his establishment of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and his work in the public understanding of neurodiversity.

I hope this Medal shines a light on how autistic people need a lot more support, from the earliest point, to lead fulfilling livesSimon Baron-CohenBrian HarrisProfessor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen


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Yes

Cambridge confers honorary degrees

News from the University of Cambridge - Wed, 19/06/2024 - 13:57

The Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, presided over a special congregation at Senate House which was attended by around 400 staff, students, alumni and invited guests. The honorary graduands this year were;

Professor Dame Carol Black (Doctor of Medical Science): From 2012-2019 Dame Carol was Principal of Newnham College and is an Honorary Fellow of both Newnham and Lucy Cavendish Colleges. A clinician and medical scientist, Carol was Director of the Centre for Connective Tissue Disorders at the Royal Free Hospital and the second woman President of the Royal College of Physicians.

Professor Stephen Stahl (Doctor of Medical Science): A psychologist and psychopharmacologist, Stephen is Clinical Professor of Health Sciences at the University of California Riverside. He is a former Visiting Fellow of Clare Hall and Honorary Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry. 

Professor Adele Diamond (Doctor of Science): A world leading neuroscientist, Adele is Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Colombia. Her work has led to improvements in treatments for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Professor Dame Carol Robinson (Doctor of Science): Carol is Dr Lee's Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and founding director of the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery. Formerly President of the Royal Society of Chemistry she is an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College. 

Professor Kip Thorne (Doctor of Science): Kip is Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). In 2017 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. He is also a winner of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics and a celebrated author. 

Professor The Hon Michael Ignatieff (Doctor of Letters): A historian, writer and broadcaster, Michael is also a former politician having led the Liberal Party in his native Canada from 2008 to 2011. A member of the Canadian Privy Council and the Order of Canada he has won the Heinemann, Orwell and Dan David Prizes. 

Murray Perahia (Doctor of Music): Murray is a world renowned pianist whose interpretations of Brahms, Beethoven Chopin and Schubert have gained much acclaim. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the winner of three Grammy Awards. He was appointed an Honorary KBE in 2004 and is an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College.   

Kip Thorne summed up the day: 

"Early in my career the three places which were the most important to me in terms of the colleagues I had were Cambridge, Moscow and the place I came from, Princeton. Cambridge being home to good friends like Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees was a special place...for me this is just tremendous to receive this honour from the place that has had such a big impact on my career."

And Dame Carol Black said:

"It almost feels unreal...I'm just so pleased and humbled by it. Nothing better could have happened to me. I'm not a Cambridge or Oxford graduate so I never thought this would happen. This is such a wonderful day and it's been lovely to see some of the people I knew when I was here as Head of House." 

 

 

The University has conferred honorary degrees to seven distinguished individuals in recognition of the achievements they have made in their respective fields. An honorary doctorate is the highest accolade the University can bestow and the ceremony is steeped in tradition. 

This is just tremendous to receive this honour from the place that has had such a big impact on my careerKip Thorne Paul SeagroveHonorary graduands


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