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    Academy of Medical Sciences

    Academy Fellows are elected for excellence in medical research, for innovative application of scientific knowledge or for their conspicuous service to healthcare. The following Cambridge researchers were have been elected this year:

    Professor Carol Brayne, Professor of Public Health Medicine and Honorary Consultant Public Health England
    Professor Nicholas Coleman, Professor of Molecular Pathology
    Professor Berthold Göttgens, Professor of Molecular Haematology
    Dr Philip Jones, Programme Leader MRC Cancer Unit and Honorary Consultant in Medical Oncology at Addenbrooke's Hospital
    Professor John O’Brien, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry
    Professor Willem Ouwehand, Professor of Experimental Haematology
    Professor Antonio Vidal-Puig, Professor of Molecular Nutrition and Metabolism and Honorary Consultant in Metabolic Medicine
    Dr Douglas Winton, Senior Group Leader, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute

    Professor Sir John Tooke PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences said: “The Academy of Medical Sciences represents the excellence and diversity of medical science in the UK, and this is evident in the broad range of expertise demonstrated by this year’s new Fellows. They each bring a unique perspective which we will value immensely. Their election is a much deserved honour for the outstanding achievements they have shown throughout their careers. I know they will contribute greatly to the Academy, and I am delighted to welcome them all to the Fellowship.”

    The new Fellows will be formally admitted to the Academy at a ceremony on Wednesday 2 July 2014. The complete list of Fellows elected this year can be found on the Academy's website.

    Eight researchers from the University of Cambridge have today been recognised for their contribution to the advancement of medical science by election to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

    Academy of Medical Sciences

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    In the course of his visit he witnessed the signature of two agreements between Cambridge and the consortium of research universities known as Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL), awarded decorations to two Cambridge academics, and attended the opening of an exhibition on the French Liberation at Cambridge University Library.

    Ambassador Emié’s first act was to witness the signature of two agreements between Cambridge and PSL.

    Formally established in 2011, PSL is a postgraduate education and research consortium comprising the École Normale Supérieure, the Collège de France, ESPCI ParisTech, Chimie ParisTech, the Observatoire de Paris, the Université Paris-Dauphine and the Institut Curie. It is one of the French government’s Initiatives d’Excellence (IdEx).

    A framework agreement was signed on behalf of the University of Cambridge by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Strategy, Dr Jennifer Barnes, and on behalf of PSL by its President, Prof Monique Canto-Sperber.

    Its purpose is to enhance the existing links – and develop new ones—between Cambridge and the various institutions comprising PSL.

    The agreement makes provision for the matched funding of joint research seminars and workshops in all areas of knowledge, and for the mobility of faculty and students between Cambridge and the various constituent parts of PSL.

    A separate letter of agreement was signed between PSL and the Cambridge Commonwealth, International and European Trust, represented by its director, Helen Pennant, for the provision of two fully-funded MPhil bursaries for PSL applicants in all disciplines.

    Speaking before the signature of the agreements, the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, referred to an episode back in the 13th century when England’s monarch, Henry III, invited Parisian scholars to join the recently founded University of Cambridge.

    He said: ”The agreements being signed today with Paris Sciences et Lettres are the latest manifestation of that scholarly connection. They offer a new instrument for Cambridge to enhance its well-established connections to some of France’s elite institutions, its most interesting scholars, and its brightest students.”

    The Vice-Chancellor added: “PSL may be one of France’s newest institutions, but we share a commitment to the same academic values of excellence and independence in research.”
    Greater mutual understanding

    Later, in the grand setting of Trinity College’s Old Combination Room, Ambassador Emié conferred French government decorations on two Cambridge scholars.

    Dr Cecil Courtney, Emeritus Reader in French Intellectual History and Bibliography, and a Fellow of Christ’s College, was made Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. After receiving the award, Dr Courtney said that the event was “a commemoration of two countries moving towards greater understanding of each other”.

    Speaking about Dr Jean Khalfa, Senior Lecturer in French and Fellow of Trinity College, Ambassador Emié praised his “invaluable role in championing francophone literature”. He reminded the audience that Dr Khalfa was the founder of the French legation in Cambridge: “You are a bridge,” he said, “you epitomise the type of scholar we are trying to create”, before awarding him the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

    Ambassador Emié’s final act of the day was to attend the opening, at Cambridge University Library, of the exhibition “Literature of the Liberation: The French Experience in Print 1944-1946”, assembled from the unique collection of more than 600 books, cartoons, magazines, photographs and gramophone records donated to Cambridge by collector Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey.

    Speaking at the exhibition’s opening, Ambassador Emié welcomed the opportunity to recognise “the longstanding links between French history and literature and the collections of the University Library”. He added: “From its Francophone medieval manuscripts, through its rich holdings of books relating to Montaigne and Rousseau, to this new collection on the Liberation, Cambridge University Library has established itself as a major centre for the study of France’s contribution to world culture.”

    University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: “We are delighted to put on display highlights from the Chadwyck-Healey Liberation Collection, in this year of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Paris. Sir Charles’s flair and determination as a book-collector have produced a critical resource for the study of this important era of twentieth-century history, and his magnificent gift of the collection underlines the continuing importance of donations – both private and corporate – to the Library’s mission of keeping the University at the cutting edge of research.”

    Picture: Jennifer Barnes, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Strategy, and Monique Canto-Sperber, President, PSL, sign the framework agreement in the presence of H.E. Bernard Emié, France’s Ambassador to the UK

    The French ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Bernard Emié, visited Cambridge last week on what was an auspicious day for the relationship between France and the University.

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    The biggest increase was seen in UK applications: 10,198 applications were received from UK students, an increase of 3.7 per cent on 2012.

    The proportion of successful applicants from under-represented groups, including students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and students living in areas where low numbers go on to higher education, remained similar to last year.

    The proportion of successful applicants educated in the state sector fell slightly to 61.4 per cent. The collegiate University’s target, agreed with OFFA, is to admit between 61 and 63 per cent of its students from the state sector by 2015-16.

    The University attributes its continued success in attracting applicants to its wide-ranging and innovative outreach work, carried out across the UK, and its commitment to transparent admissions decisions based on academic track record.

    • The University offers one of the biggest residential Easter and Summer School programmes in the UK. 1,200 places were offered in 2013, up from around 450 in 2009, giving more potential applicants the chance to experience collegiate Cambridge for themselves.
    • HE+, the University’s unique collaborative project delivered in partnership with groups of state schools and colleges across the UK, has now worked with 5000 participants since its launch in the 2009-10 academic year.  Almost 40% of HE+ participants who have applied to Cambridge over the past three years have been made offers.
    • The Oxford and Cambridge Student Conferences, nine large-scale conferences held in seven UK cities, reach around 8,000 students and teachers each year. More than 73 per cent of these are from the state sector. Around 15 per cent of student attendees go on to apply to Cambridge.
    • The AS provides an up-to-date, objective and transparent record of academic progress at the point of application. The University argues that its use in the Cambridge admissions process has allowed it simultaneously to raise standards and widen participation without engaging in positive discrimination.

    Dr Mike Sewell, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, said:

    “We have been delighted to see another increase in the number of talented and ambitious students applying to, and competing for a place, at Cambridge.

    “We are a highly selective institution and inevitably not every application will be successful.  However we can assure every applicant – and their schools, advisers and parents - that they have been assessed holistically as an individual, and they have been assessed on academic factors alone.

    “We remain within our target range for state school admissions. Year-on-year variations were anticipated and we are still above the position of 2011.

    “Such fluctuations also demonstrate that we prioritise fairness in our admissions decisions over meeting targets. We do not operate a quota system at Cambridge. Every successful applicant has won their place on merit in an open and fair contest.”

    Applications to the University of Cambridge rose again in the 2013 cycle to an all-time high of 16,185, according to undergraduate admissions statistics published today.

    We are a highly selective institution and inevitably not every application will be successful. However we can assure every applicant – and their schools, advisers and parents - that they have been assessed holistically as an individual, and they have been assessed on academic factors alone.
    Dr Mike Sewell, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges.
    Sidney Sussex College in Spring

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    Scientist holding a mouse

    Opinion polling in 2012 showed that the public wants to know more about what goes on in animal research. Since then the bioscience community has worked together to set out how it will be more open about why and how it uses animals in research. The final Concordat is published today.

    The 72 signatories have undertaken to fulfill the Concordat’s four commitments:

    • We will be clear about when, how and why we use animals in research
    • We will enhance our communications with the media and the public about our research using animals
    • We will be proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research using animals
    • We will report on progress annually and share our experiences

    Under each of the commitments is a series of actions that signatories can take to fulfil them.  These include: identifying spokespeople who will answer questions about an organisation’s use of animals, supporting researchers who would like to talk about their work using animals, and including information on the role that animal research has played in announcements of scientific advances. 

    Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, says: “Without the use of animals in research, we would have few of the modern medicines, antibiotics, vaccines and surgical techniques that we take for granted in both human and veterinary medicine. Indeed, some of the pioneering work for which Cambridge is best known and which has led to major improvements in people’s lives was only possible using animals, from the development of IVF techniques through to human monoclonal antibodies.

    “We are proud of our work, which meets the highest standards of animal welfare, and always strive to reduce the number of animals used. But we recognise the need to talk openly and honestly about our research and why the use of animals is necessary. We know the public is broadly supportive of animal research, but if we are to maintain this level of support, our work must be conducted in an environment of openness and transparency.”

    Wendy Jarrett, Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research and Chair of the Working Group which developed the Concordat, says: “For many years, the only ‘information’ or images that the public could access about animal research were provided by organisations opposed to the use of animals in scientific progress.  This is why many people still think that animal research means testing cosmetics and tobacco, despite the fact that these have been banned in the UK for more than 15 years.  The Concordat is an excellent opportunity to dispel these myths and give the public a chance to see the ground-breaking research that is being done on its behalf.”

    The University of Cambridge announces today that it has signed the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK, joining over seventy organisations including academia, industry, funders and charities.

    If we are to maintain public support for animal research, our work must be conducted in an environment of openness and transparency
    Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice Chancellor
    Scientist holding a mouse

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    concordat.pdf (3.84 MB)

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    Two significant breakthroughs which could inform future treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, have been announced by scientists.

    The research, published in two separate studies this week, advances understanding of the early development of such disorders and how they might be prevented – in particular by identifying the biological areas and processes that could be pinpointed by future drugs.

    Both sets of results have emerged from collaborations between the research groups led by Chris Dobson, Tuomas Knowles and Michele Vendruscolo at the University of Cambridge, who focus on understanding protein “misfolding” diseases. These include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as numerous others.

    The first study provides evidence that the early spread of the protein aggregates associated with Parkinson’s appears to happen at an accelerated rate in mildly acidic conditions. This suggests that particular compartments within brain cells, which are slightly more acidic than others, may turn out to be appropriate targets for future treatments fighting the disease.

    Meanwhile, researchers behind the second study appear to have identified a way in which the effectiveness of so-called molecular “chaperones”, responsible for limiting the damage caused by misfolded proteins, can be significantly enhanced.

    The papers appear in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

    As the term suggests, protein misfolding diseases stem from the fact that proteins, which need to fold into a particular shape to carry out their assigned function in the body, can sometimes misfold. In certain cases these misfolded proteins then clump together into fibre-like threads, called amyloid fibrils, potentially becoming toxic to other cells.

    How this formation begins at a molecular level is still not completely understood, but comprehending the process will be fundamental to the development of future therapies and is the subject of extensive current research.

    The first of the new studies builds on research published in 2013, which showed that in Alzheimer’s sufferers, the initial “nucleation” between proteins, which leads to amyloid formation, is followed by an amplification process called secondary nucleation. In these secondary events, the existing amyloid structures facilitate the formation of new aggregates, leading to their exponential increase. This process is likely to be at the heart of the development and spread of the disease in affected brains.

    Using the same techniques, the researchers behind the latest study identified a similar process that is relevant in the early stage development of Parkinson’s Disease. Their work focused on a protein called α-synuclein, which is associated with the disorder, and simulated different conditions in which this protein might misfold and form clumps.

    As with the previous study on Alzheimer’s, the research identified that Parkinson’s could spread through a series of secondary nucleation events. In addition, however, it showed that in the case of α-synuclein, this happens at a highly accelerated rate only in solutions which are mildly acidic, with a pH below 5.8. The finding is important because certain sub-compartments within cells are more acidic than others, meaning that these may be particularly productive areas for future treatments to target.

    Dr Tuomas Knowles, from the Department of Chemistry and a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, said: “This tells us much more about the molecular mechanisms underlying protein aggregation in Parkinson’s and suggests that mildly acidic microenvironments within cells may enhance that process by several orders of magnitude. Not every sub-cellular compartment offers these conditions, so it takes us much closer to understanding how the disease might spread.”

    The second study meanwhile suggests a potential route to improving the effectiveness of a particular molecular “chaperone” – a loose classification for proteins which assist in the folding of others, thereby preventing them from causing damage when they misfold.

    The researchers focused on a chaperone called α2-macroglobulin (α2M), which is found outside cells themselves. This is important because neurodegenerative diseases often stem from a process which begins with extracellular misfolding. The α2M was tested on a substrate of the amyloid-beta peptide associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

    Typically, the potency of α2M is limited. The new study, however, found that when it comes into contact with the oxidant hypochlorite – the same chemical found in household bleach, which also naturally occurs in our immune systems – its structure is modified in a manner that makes it into a much more dynamic defence.

    In their report, the researchers suggest that this increased effectiveness stems from the fact that α2M, which is usually found in a four-part, “tetrameric” form, breaks down into “dimeric”, two-part forms when it comes into contact with hypochlorite.

    The chaperone usually plays its role by preventing a misfolded protein from interacting with the membranes that surround and protect cells. Once in its dimeric form, however, receptor binding sites within the α2M are exposed, leading to specific interactions with receptors on the cell itself. If the α2M has already interacted with misfolded proteins, this connection triggers the cell to break the potentially harmful protein down.

    “It’s almost like a warning flag for the cell, telling it that something is wrong,” Dr Janet Kumita, from the Department of Chemistry, explained. “It triggers the cell to react in a way that subjects the cargo of misfolded protein to a degradation pathway.”

    “Increasing its potency in this way is an exciting prospect. If we could find a way of developing a drug that introduces the same structural alterations, we would have a therapeutic intervention capable of increasing this protective activity in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.”

    Professor Christopher Dobson, from the University’s Department of Chemistry and Master of St John’s College, said: “These studies add very substantially to our detailed understanding of the molecular origins of neurodegenerative diseases, which are now becoming one of the greatest threats to healthcare in the modern world.”

    “We are beginning to understand exactly how a single, aberrant event can lead to the proliferation and spreading of toxic species throughout the brain, and the manner in which our sophisticated defence mechanisms do their best to suppress such phenomena. It will undoubtedly provide vital clues to the development in due course of new and effective drugs to combat these debilitating and increasingly common disorders.”

    For more information, please contact: Tom Kirk, St John’s College, University of Cambridge. Tel: +44 (0)1223  768377, Mob: +44 (0)7764 161923; Email: 

    Conditions which may accelerate the spread of Parkinson’s disease, and a potential means of enhancing naturally-occurring defences against neurodegenerative disorders, have been identified in two new studies.

    We are beginning to understand exactly how a single, aberrant event can lead to the proliferation and spreading of toxic species throughout the brain, and the manner in which our sophisticated defence mechanisms do their best to suppress such phenomena
    Chris Dobson

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    Close-up image of the Queen on a bank note

    There is a widespread perception since the 2008 global financial crisis that economists – more precisely, the free-market economists who have dominated the world in the last three decades – have miserably failed in their job of managing the economy. Unfortunately, the world has been too forgiving of these economists. Despite the fact that they have completely bungled their jobs, the same economists are still telling the world what to do.

    However, this state of affairs may not last for long. Undergraduate students have formed the International Student Initiative for Economic Pluralism across 19 countries in four continents, calling for greater openness and plurality in the teaching of economics. Employers have become more vocal in complaining about the quality of the ‘products’ that they get from economics degree programmes – highly trained in mathematics and statistics, but very narrow in theoretical perspectives and very ignorant of real world economies.

    More importantly, it is increasingly recognised that ordinary citizens need to get involved in economic debates. In a democracy, you will never get a decent policy in any area unless the voting public is interested and knowledgeable enough about it and the economy is no exception.

    Despite this recognition, most people are reluctant to learn economics because there is a widespread perception that it is a very technical subject that is beyond the reach of non-specialists. This fear of economics has reduced the ability of citizens to influence economic policy-making, making them increasingly feel powerless and thus disinterested in democratic politics.

    This need not be the case: most of economics can be understood by anyone with a secondary education, if it is explained in an accessible way, which is what I try to do in my new book, Economics: The User’s Guide.

    Many economists believe themselves, and tell other people, that economics is a ‘value-free’ science, like physics or chemistry. However, my book emphasises that economics is a fundamentally political and moral subject – indeed, it started out as a branch of moral philosophy. Whereas the particles and forces studied by physicists and chemists do not hold political and moral views, the human beings who populate the economy do, and therefore we cannot fully understand the economy without understanding politics and ethics.

    Moreover, even the boundary of the economy – and thus the scope of economics – is determined by ethical and political judgments; for example, child labour used to be a perfectly legitimate object of market transaction until the early 20th century even in the richest countries. This means that the market itself is a political construct, rather than a natural order that should not be tampered with by ‘political’ intervention. Once we realise this, we begin to see how no economic argument can be free from politics.

    All of this means that there cannot be one ‘correct’ way of ‘doing’ economics. And indeed, there are nine ‘schools’ of economics (and that’s only counting the major ones), including three varieties for free-market economics alone (Classical, Neoclassical, and Austrian). They all make different political and ethical assumptions, focus on different things (for instance, production or exchange), and have different theories about how economies change.

    It is important to learn about different types of economic theories and their respective strengths and weaknesses, because reality is complex and therefore we can understand it in its full complexity only when we have a range of theories at our disposal. To deal with today’s economic problems we need different economic approaches for different issues. The dominant Neoclassical economics can be very powerful when we analyse well-specified problems in a setting in which technologies and politics are stable, but we need the Austrian and the Keynesian approaches in order to better deal with situations characterised by uncertainty and instability. We should use Institutionalist and Behaviouralist approaches more, if we are to come up with robust solutions about systemic reforms – be they about finance or the welfare state. To think about reviving economic dynamism in the long run, we have to learn more from the Schumpeterian, the Developmentalist, the Classical, and the Marxist schools.

    It is not necessary – or even possible – for citizens who are not economists to learn economics at a professional level. However, it is possible – and necessary – that they acquaint themselves with the main economic theories and their respective strengths and weaknesses. When combined with some knowledge of real world economies, such knowledge will enable them to make informed judgments on economic issues and exercise what I call active economic citizenship. It is time that we de-mystify economics.

    Ha-Joon Chang is Reader in the Political Economy of Development and has just published Economics: The User’s Guide, which aims to explain economics in a way that most people can understand. Dr Chang will be speaking about the book as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival later this month.

    The recent global financial crisis has driven home the urgent need for everyone to have a grasp of economics - and there's no reason why this can't be the case, argues Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang.

    You will never get a decent policy unless the voting public is interested and knowledgeable enough about it and the economy is no exception
    Ha-Joon Chang
    Keep an eye on your money

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    Dr Erwin Reisner

    The Royal Society of Chemists has honoured four Cambridge scientists this month (May, 2014).

    Dr Erwin Reisner, Professor David Spring, Dr Keith Taber, and Professor Ian Paterson were among those recognised nationally by the eminent society.

    Congratulating the winners Dr Robert Parker, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry said: “Each year we present prizes and awards to chemical scientists who have made an outstanding contribution, be that in their area of research, in industry or academia.

    “Our winners can be very proud to follow in the footsteps of some of the most influential and important chemical scientists in history.”

    The work done by Dr Reisner - combining molecular synthesis, chemical biology and materials chemistry to develop artificial photosynthesis – won him the Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prize.

    It is bestowed “for the most meritorious and promising original investigations in chemistry and published results of those investigations.”

    Professor David Spring took the Corday-Morgan Prize, awarded “for the most meritorious contributions to chemistry”.

    The award comes for his contributions to chemistry-driven drug discovery through his work in diversity-oriented synthesis and chemical biology.

    Dr Keith Taber was the Chemistry Education Award winner, recognised for “extensive research that has contributed significantly to the teaching and learning of chemistry concepts”.

    Currently Chair of the Science, Technology and Mathematics Education Academic Group, Dr Teiber teaches about educational research methods on a range of courses, and supervises masters and doctoral students at Cambridge.

    Professor Ian Paterson was the Natural Product Chemistry Award winner – awarded for his work which looks to develop new ways of making important chemical compounds produced in nature.

    Image: Dr Erwin Reisner

    Prizes recognise outstanding contributions to chemistry.

    Our winners can be very proud to follow in the footsteps of some of the most influential and important chemical scientists in history.
    Dr Robert Parker, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry
    Dr Erwin Reisner
    Royal Society of Chemistry Prizes and Awards

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    Muslims in the UK and Europe runs from May 16-18 when 24 current Master’s and PhD candidates from universities in Britain and Europe will gather to discuss, debate and present their research on issues affecting the life of Muslims in the 21st century.

    Conversion to Salafism, hate crimes and wearing of the hijab will also come under scrutiny at the event, which takes place at the Moller Centre, located in the grounds of Churchill College, Cambridge.

    Professor Yasir Suleiman, Director of the Centre of Islamic Studies, said: “Muslims are rarely out of the news in the West. The symposium brings together some of the best young scholars from the UK, Europe and USA to debate pressing issues facing Muslims in the UK and Europe. We hope that this symposium will become an annual event and that it will expand to bridge the gap between fundamental research and practice in different walks of life.”

    Ruth Helen Corbet, from Glasgow University, will talk at the symposium about British Muslim piety and the welfare of animals for food – spotlighting three UK Islamic enterprises practising excellent welfare standards.

    Corbet said the negative media portrayal over the slaughter process for halal meat was caused by the assumption that all halal meat is non-stunned and infiltrating schools, supermarkets and restaurant chains. However, she argues that according to Government figures - only three per cent of cattle are slaughtered without stunning and more than 80pc of animals used for halal meat are stunned.

    “I would contend that all means of death should be labelled, to do otherwise culturalises cruelty, making one minority group of consumers appear responsible for the suffering of animals for food," she said. "This seems unreasonable when 19 million quadrupeds and 750 million birds are slaughtered per year in the UK alone.”

    Elsewhere, LSE’s Adviya Khan will report on her research into the experiences of British hip-hop group Poetic Pilgrimage, which consists of two black, female, Muslim converts, Sukina Abdul Noor and Muneera Rashida. Her work is raising the profile of black female converts whose experiences have often been almost entirely absent in conversion narratives – a discrepancy also noted by Cambridge’s Centre of Islamic Studies during its own study into the experiences of 50 female converts last year (

    Khan said: “During my interviews, it became clear that racism was a lived reality for Poetic Pilgrimage – and was far from one dimensional. It came from various sectors of society, including Muslims and non-Muslims and was manifested in terms of both colour racism and Islamophobia. Black, Muslim voices are absent in media, politics and popular discussions around Islam. Poetic Pilgrimage along with other female acts is virtually invisible from mainstream Muslim TV channels, websites and events, unlike their male counterparts.”

    The symposium begins with registration at noon on Friday, May 16, and continues until lunch on Sunday. For further details visit:

    Halal meat, the representation of Islam in the British press, and female, Muslim hip-hop artists will all be topics of discussion at a three-day symposium held by Cambridge University’s Centre of Islamic Studies.

    Muslims are rarely out of the news in the West.
    Yasir Suleiman
    London Central Mosque

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    Scientists have created a ‘heavy’ mouse, the world’s first animal enriched with heavy but non-radioactive isotopes - enabling them to capture in unprecedented detail the molecular structure of natural tissue by reading the magnetism inherent in the isotopes.

    This data has been used to grow biological tissue in the lab practically identical to native tissue, which can be manipulated and analysed in ways impossible with natural samples. Researchers say the approach has huge potential for scientific and medical breakthroughs: lab-grown tissue could be used to replace heart valves, for example.

    In fact, with their earliest research on the new in vitro tissue, the team have discovered that poly(ADP ribose) (PAR) – a molecule believed to only exist inside a cell for the purpose of repairing DNA – not only travels outside cells but may trigger bone mineralisation.

    “It was crazy to see PAR behaving in this way; it took six months of detailed analysis and many more experiments to convince ourselves,” said Dr Melinda Duer from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, who led the study, published today in the journal Science.

    “I think this is just the first of many discoveries that will stem from the heavy mouse. Isotope-enriched proteins and cells are fairly commonplace now, but the leap to a whole animal is a big one.

    “The heavier nuclei in the carbon isotopes changes the rate of chemical reactions, and many people – myself initially included – didn’t believe you could enrich a whole animal with them. But it worked beautifully,” she said.

    The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and British Heart Foundation, could lead to improved success rates for medical implants and reduce the need for animals in research, as well as opening up an entirely new approach for biochemical investigation.

    The team used a technique called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy (NMR) that can read the magnetic nuclei found in certain isotopes, such as carbon-13 – which has one neutron more than most carbon.

    But carbon-13 makes up only 1% of the carbon in our bodies, nowhere near enough to do useful NMR. However, the researchers managed to get the carbon of a mouse up to 20% carbon-13.

    So how do you make a heavy mouse? Perhaps obviously, you feed it a lot. “We used mouse feed rich in carbon-13 and let the mouse eat as much as it liked,” said Duer. “No one had thought to do it before. Maybe everyone had assumed it wouldn’t work, I certainly got some odd looks from colleagues.”

    Using NMR analysis of the mouse tissue to map the distance between the carbon atoms and reveal atomic structures, researchers were able to create a ‘gold standard’ reference for growing tissue in the lab – a fingerprint of the atomic networks that are the basis of proteins in our biology.    

    The team shared this with scientists Rakesh Rajan and Dr Roger Brooks in the Division of Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery at the University’s Department of Surgery, who used the Duer group’s NMR ‘spectra’ maps to refine cell cultures and produce exceptional lab-grown tissue that looks near identical to real tissue.
    "We found that once you get it right at a molecular level, the rest looks after itself" - Melinda Duer
    When comparing microscopy images of the new lab-grown tissue with native tissue, Duer says she has yet to find a biologist who can tell the difference. “We found that once you get it right at a molecular level, the rest looks after itself,” she said.

    The new techniques allow scientists to go beyond the nanoscopic, which has been the limit for tissue analysis, and into the atomic. “We could see signals in the NMR data for our lab-grown tissue, extra intensities that – when matched with the heavy mouse data – revealed where proteins hadn’t folded up properly,” said Brooks.

    This kind of ‘misfolding’ is almost impossible to detect through microscopes, but could result in host rejection if the tissue were to be implanted. “Through a process of repeat NMR comparisons we were able to modify the lab tissue until it looked near identical with NMR and under the microscope,” explained Brooks.

    Not only have the researchers developed these techniques, they also managed to strike scientific gold during some of their first experiments on lab-grown tissue matched to the heavy mouse.

    Using bone-forming cells, the group grew collagen tissue in the lab to look at how bone is developed. While using the new method to look for sugars, they found signs of molecules that shouldn’t be there – the closest thing these molecules resembled was DNA.

    After further research, the team were forced to reach a very surprising conclusion: the molecule was poly(ADP ribose), or PAR, previously only thought to be found inside cells where its purpose in life is flagging damaged DNA for repair.  

    “Not only is PAR there, and leaving the cells entirely, but once it’s in the surrounding matrix it’s perfectly designed to start pulling together the calcium and phosphate that make up bone crystals,” explained Duer.

    This is happening at the exact same time the cells start laying down the organic matrix to house the mineral crystals that form bone, says Duer. In the intervening six months, a staining test for PAR had been developed, so the team checked again on bone growth taken straight from the animal.

    “When the results came back, even I couldn’t believe it! The bone tissue was stained everywhere,” said Duer.

    The team had discovered that the molecule listed in all the textbooks as the deft surgeon of DNA also moonlights as an engine of bone production.

    “The fact that we are already making such remarkable discoveries using the techniques that have been developed as a result of the heavy mouse is hugely exciting, and shows the enormous potential of this approach,” said Duer.

    “We’re now looking at blood vessels to see if lab-grown tissue could be used for replacement arteries and heart valves - and to see if we can find the molecules that trigger calcification of the arteries, as well as calcification of bone.”

    “One mouse on a specific diet might end up rewriting the textbooks.”

    Melinda Duer with Roger Brooks, Rakesh Rajan, Wing Ying Chow and the rest of the Cambridge team behind the 'heavy mouse'. 

    Molecular ‘fingerprint’ for tissue taken from first isotope-enriched mouse has huge potential for scientific breakthroughs, as well as improved medical implants. Earliest research based on data has already revealed that a molecule thought to exist for repairing DNA may also in fact trigger bone formation.

    One mouse on a specific diet might end up rewriting the textbooks
    Melinda Duer
    Image shows C57BL/6 mice, the common strain of laboratory mouse, in a Cambridge animal house. This breed of animal was used in the 'heavy mouse' study.

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  • 05/16/14--00:23: Exposing ‘evil twins’
  • A direct relationship between the way in which light is twisted by nanoscale structures and the nonlinear way in which it interacts with matter could be used to ensure greater purity for pharmaceuticals, allowing for ‘evil twins’ of drugs to be identified with much greater sensitivity.

    Researchers from the University of Cambridge have used this relationship, in combination with powerful lasers and nanopatterned gold surfaces, to propose a sensing mechanism that could be used to identify the right-handed and left-handed versions of molecules.

    Some molecules are symmetrical, so their mirror image is an exact copy. However, most molecules in nature have a mirror image that differs - try putting a left-handed glove on to your right hand and you’ll see that your hands are not transposable one onto the other. Molecules whose mirror-images display this sort of “handedness” are known as chiral.

    The chirality of a molecule affects how it interacts with its surroundings, and different chiral forms of the same molecule can have completely different effects. Perhaps the best-known instance of this is Thalidomide, which was prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s. One chiral form of Thalidomide worked as an effective treatment for morning sickness in early pregnancy, while the other form, like an ‘evil twin’, prevented proper growth of the foetus. The drug that was prescribed to patients however, was a mix of both forms, resulting in more than 10,000 children worldwide being born with serious birth defects, such as shortened or missing limbs.

    When developing new pharmaceuticals, identifying the correct chiral form is crucial. Specific molecules bind to specific receptors, so ensuring the correct chiral form is present determines the purity and effectiveness of the end product. However, the difficulty with achieving chiral purity is that usually both forms are synthesised in equal quantities.

    Researchers from the University of Cambridge have designed a new type of sensing mechanism, combining a unique twisting property of light with frequency doubling to identify different chiral forms of molecules with extremely high sensitivity, which could be useful in the development of new drugs. The results are published in the journal Advanced Materials.

    The sensing mechanism, designed by Dr Ventsislav Valev and Professor Jeremy Baumberg from the Cavendish Laboratory, in collaboration with colleagues from the UK and abroad, uses a nanopatterned gold surface in combination with powerful lasers.

    Currently, differing chiral forms of molecules are detected by using beams of polarised light. The way in which the light is twisted by the molecules results in chiroptical effects, which are typically very weak. By using powerful lasers however, second harmonic generation (SHG) chiroptical effects emerge, which are typically three orders of magnitude stronger. SHG is a quantum mechanical process whereby two red photons can be annihilated to create a blue photon, creating blue light from red.

    Recently, another major step towards increasing chiroptical effects came from the development of superchiral light – a super twisty form of light.

    The researchers identified a direct link between the fundamental equations for superchiral light and SHG, which would make even stronger chiroptical effects possible. Combining superchiral light and SHG could yield record-breaking effects, which would result in very high sensitivity for measuring the chiral purity of drugs.

    The researchers also used tiny gold structures, known as plasmonic nanostructures, to focus the beams of light. Just as a glass lens can be used to focus sunlight to a certain spot, these plasmonic nanostructures concentrate incoming light into hotspots on their surface, where the optical fields become huge. Due to the presence of optical field variations, it is in these hotspots that superchiral light and SHG combine their effects.

    “By using nanostructures, lasers and this unique twisting property of light, we could selectively destroy the unwanted form of the molecule, while leaving the desired form unaffected,” said Dr Valev. “Together, these technologies could help ensure that new drugs are safe and pure.”

    A combination of nanotechnology and a unique twisting property of light could lead to new methods for ensuring the purity and safety of pharmaceuticals.

    Together, these technologies could help ensure that new drugs are safe and pure
    Ventsislav Valev
    When twisted light matches the twist of nanostructures, strong interactions with chiral molecules could arise

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    The second Festival of Plants at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden brings together horticulture and science in a day devoted to all things plant, from propagation to pollination, from seed to shopping.

    A range of events and exhibits timetabled throughout the day make full use of the Garden, which will be at its best mid-May:

    Pop-up Plant Science
    Here some of the top plant scientists from the East of England will be talking about their research and demonstrating scientific experiments.  Visitors will be able to extract plant pigments, discover petal patterning, find out about the plant power behind Moss FM, learn how plants grow round the bend and much more.

    Talking Plants
    Expanded to run all day this year, visitors can drop in to the Talking Plants tent for bite-size science talks. This year's topics include the how and why of flower colour, getting your grass carbon fix, the most dangerous plant in the world, colour breaks in tulips, and introductions to some of the region's National Plant collections.

    Plant Promenade
    The Garden’s majestic Main Walk will be transformed into a Plant Promenade of plant shopping stalls, which this year include the legendary Beth Chatto Nursery and RHS Chelsea regulars, Fernatix, alongside many other local boutique nurseries all offering beautiful and unusual plants for sale. Visitors can also bring their thorny gardening dilemmas to the Garden’s expert horticultural staff at Ask the Gardener and find out about the work of Plant Heritage and the Wildlife Trusts.

    Meet the Family
    Discover plant diversity on the Garden’s unique Systematic Beds.  Experts will be on hand to explain the key differences between plant families and invite visitors to pull apart some flowers and use the structures to determine which plants belong together and build a family tree. 

    Tour table
    Double the number of tours are available this year due to their popularity at last year’s event and will take in the collections and plants that are looking their best in mid-May, including the tree collection, the wildflowers, the Systematic Beds, bee plants, and an introduction to the Garden’s National Collections. Plus there’ll be rare opportunities to go behind-the-scenes to the reserve collections and to join a drop-in canopy tour of the tropical rainforests in the Glasshouse Range (morning only).

    Plant Lab
    Families can try out UV torches on glow in the dark plants, smash up leaves to make dyes, find out how plants travel and much more in the new family-friendly Plant Lab.

    So whether it’s getting advice on which plant goes where or how to home compost, discovering the inner workings of flowers, picking up some unusual plants for the garden, or simply having a fun day out with the family, there’ll be something for everyone at the Botanic Garden’s Festival of Plants.

    Festival of Plants runs from 10am – 4pm on Saturday 17 May 2014.  Admission is £4.50/£4.95 gift aid (£3.95/£4.30 concession) and accompanied children 16 and under are admitted free of charge.  For further visitor information please call 01223 336265 or visit

    Festival of Plants is generously supported by the Cambridge Partnership for Plant Science (CPPS) and the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University.

    A day dedicated to bringing plants into focus on Saturday 17 May, 10am – 4pm

    Join our team of horticulturalists, plant experts and scientists from across the region for a garden day out with a difference.
    Juliet Day
    Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

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    Recently discovered rock art on the walls of a cave in the Egyptian Western Desert has been provisionally dated by a Cambridge University archaeologist as between 6,000 and 7,000 years old, created at least 1,000 years before the building of the pyramids. The drawings add weight to the argument that Egyptian culture drew on cultural influences from Africa and not only from the Near East.

    Spotted by a tourist to Wadi el Obeiyid, north of Farafra Oasis, drawings of a giraffe, a bovid (cow-like mammal) and two boats, plus the outline of a human hand, were examined last month by Dr Giulio Lucarini who co-leads a team of archaeologists looking at the pathways, and timings, by which domestic animals and plants from the Levant arrived in Egypt. The engravings are thought to have been discovered in 2010. The onset of revolution in Egypt meant that they were not investigated for some time.

    Based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, Lucarini is an expert in the transition from foraging to farming in North Africa. With Professor Barbara Barich of ISMEO in Rome, he is co-director of a project (the Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis) that has been studying the archaeology of this region of the Eastern Sahara since the late 1980s.

    Lucarini will highlight these artworks and others tonight in a public talk about his work as part of the Pint of Science series taking place in pubs in eight cities across the UK. 

    The site of the newly-identified images – which are engraved into the white chalk surface – has been dubbed the Boats Arch, a reference the shape of the shallow cave.The location is 600 km southwest of Cairo and 50 km into the desert from the nearest paved road at Farafra  – a journey across a desert track surrounded by beautiful sand dunes.

    Boats Arch is about 3 km from another site – known as Wadi el Obeiyid Cave - where examples of rock art were first examined by Barich in 1995. The art in this first cave features representations of engraved boats and animals as well as painted hand stencils.  “What’s really exciting is that these drawings are among the earliest artistic evidence of the people who lived in the Farafra and possibly in the whole Eastern Sahara,” said Lucarini.

    Rock art is notoriously tricky to date. “The marked similarity in style seen in the bovid, which is probably an oryx, and giraffe in the Boats Arch and the animals in Wadi Obeiyid Cave, dated to around 6000/5500 BC, suggests a similar period for the two sites. In style the boat images correlate to those found on decorated pots from Predynastic sites along the Nile Valley, dated around 3500 BC. But we can presume from the regrowth of calcite crystals along their engravings, possible under humid conditions, that they could be even older,” said Lucarini.

    Farafra's rock art sites are 600 km from the Red Sea, 400 km from the Mediterranean and 300 km from the Nile.

    “The location is another important for another aspect of the find," said Lucarini.  "Representations of boats in the Egyptian Western Desert are rare in comparison to those in the Eastern Desert, a region which connects the Nile valley with the Red Sea. They could have been created by people who were moving across very long distances and could have visited the sea or the Nile Valley. In the sites we investigated we did not find any faunal remains belonging to giraffe so, like the images of boats, the drawing of the giraffe may represent not a local element but something seen somewhere else and considered exotic.”

    The Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis is building a picture of the transition from foraging societies to communities based on the exploitation of domestic species. Today the Wadi el Obeiyid landscape is arid and characterised by white limestone formations and high sand dunes, but thousands of years ago the region was a savannah-like environment with grasslands offering subsistence to human groups and animals.

    “Since 1987, we have had permission from the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities to survey some 10,000 square kilometres of desert. Our starting point in the research is the use of satellite images which enable us to identify past sources of water and therefore where settlements may have been located. We then carry out detailed walking surveys of these areas to try to locate the presence of old seasonal lacustrine basins, shallow pools, around which people used to live,” said Lucarini.

    Over the past years Lucarini and team have been studying the remains of Sheikh el Obeiyid village, a slab structure site with stone circles that were once the foundations of huts made with animal skin and vegetation. “We’ve also found tumuli containing corridor structures. They weren’t dwellings, burials or storage spaces. They may have had a religious or symbolic function,” he said.

    “In the past archaeologists have tended to see Africa as somehow lagging ‘behind’ Europe and the Near East, but our work shows that people living in the Eastern Sahara had a significant and developed culture – which fed into the development of the Pharaonic civilization and beyond.”

    Lucarini is keen to develop training programmes for Egyptian Antiquities inspectors, teachers and school children in order to share the team’s research into the region’s archaeological and environmental significance and underline the importance of preserving the cultural heritage, which is, at present, vulnerable to damage.

    Dr Giulio Lucarini is contributing to the Pint of Science series on the theme of ‘Yesterday’s Planet: A Brief History of Earth’ at the Maypole, Portugal Place, Cambridge, on Monday 19 May at 7.30pm. Other speakers are archaeologist Dr Ronika Power and earth scientist Eleanor Jennings, both University of Cambridge.  All Cambridge-based Pint of Science sessions are fully booked.

    Inset images: Giulio Lucarini at work in the Farafra Oasis, boat and giraffe engravings at Boats Arch (all Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis)

    For more information on this story contact Alexandra Buxton, Communications Office, University of Cambridge 01223 761673

    The identification of rock art found in Farafra as Neolithic adds substance to the argument that Egypt drew on cultural influences from Africa as well as the Near East.  At a talk tonight (19 May, 2014) archaeologist Dr Giulio Lucarini will talk about his fieldwork in the Egyptian Western Desert and show images of newly-identified Neolithic drawings to a public audience for the first time.

    What’s really exciting is that these drawings are among the earliest artistic evidence of the people who lived in the Farafra and possibly in the whole Eastern Sahara.
    Giulio Lucarini
    Boats Arch in the Eastern Sahara, site of recently identified Neolithic rock art

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    Farrar was speaking at the “Global health in an era of austerity, conflict and climate change: defining achievable goals” debate organised by Gates Cambridge and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at the Royal Society.

    He also stated that international connectivity meant we are all now interconnected which means “everything matters to all of us” and health challenges in one country can no longer be dismissed by the rest of the world.

    He was optimistic about the political will for change and the funding opportunities from organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and he added that the younger generation in particular showed a “real will to make a difference” despite the huge challenges ahead.

    Andrew Robertson, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and Trustee who is Director of Global Regulatory Policy at Merck & Co, talked about the role of big pharma in providing solutions to healthcare challenges.

    He said he was relatively optimistic about the role of the private sector in global health and access issues, but added that they needed to work in partnership with other organisations.

    Gates Cambridge Scholar Julia Fan Li spoke about her role as director of a new model for funding drug innovation for diseases affecting low income countries, the $108m Global Health Investment Fund.

    The fund aims to reconcile innovation and access issues by funding eight to 10 global health innovations over the next decade.  Because any losses are protected by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation it is an attractive prospect for investors, she said, adding that the approach focused on investment rather than charity and philanthropy.

    “It provides a pool of capital that can be used for good,” said Fan Li. “And the long term social benefits will ensure investors get returns over time.”

    Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz,  Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and former head of Medical Research Council, said global health could not be seen in isolation to other issues such as education.

    He added that the nature of disease was changing with non-communicable disease such as heart disease  and mental ill health having a major impact in developing countries and that many of the issues facing the world, like food shortage, required urgent solutions.

    He said improvements needed to be made to the system of delivering healthcare and universities like the University of Cambridge had a big role to play in this. “We have the capacity to influence outcomes. We need to work together and share our knowledge with partners in other countries,” he said.

    The audience of 100, which included Gates Cambridge Scholars and guests from the media, government, NGOs, and academia, questioned the panel about issues ranging from whether it was more important to strive for academic success or try to have more immediate impact on the ground and how to speed up the regulatory system for healthcare innovations without, in Farrar's words "creating poor products for poor people", to sustainable development goals.

    The event was moderated by Dr Tine Van Bortel, Senior Research Associate in Public Health at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge.


    Photo L-R: Ian Farrar, The Vice-Chancellor, Julia Fan Li, Tine Van Bortel, Barry Everett

    One of the greatest challenges facing the world in the next decade will be developing critical, inspiring leaders of global organisations, Jeremy Farrar, Head of the Wellcome Trust, told a debate on global health challenges this week.

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    LIFT OFF!, which runs from 24 May to 31 August, is an exhibition devoted to Metzger’s auto-creative art, and offers fresh insight into his long interest in science and the expansion of sculpture beyond its traditional boundaries. The exhibition will include a new film of Metzger in conversation with curator Elizabeth Fisher, reflecting on this aspect of his practice. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated catalogue and a wider programme of lectures and events. There will be a one-day conference in Cambridge that explores the relationships between art, science and technology then and now.

    The exhibition includes Metzger’s landmark piece Liquid Crystal Environment (1965 remade 2005) on loan from Tate. This hypnotic environment is composed of projections that create constantly shifting psychedelic patterns. The exhibition will also showcase seminal works that Metzger first made during a three-week long exhibition in a university laboratory in Swansea in 1969, which, due to their experimental nature, have not been seen since. The artist has creatively revisited these exciting works using air, water and heat and has made variations, including new work, for the exhibition. LIFT OFF! will present for the first time a brand new series of photographic works made by Gustav Metzger while working with Lizzie Fisher in Cambridge in May 2014. By using air to manipulate the movement of fibre-optic light across photosensitive paper, Metzger brings together ideas that have permeated his work since the 1960s.

    The show highlights Metzger’s close connections with the city of Cambridge. Born in Nuremburg in 1926, Metzger came to Britain as a refugee in 1939. He began his education as a student at Cambridge School of Art in the 1940s and lived in East Anglia throughout much of the 1950s. Two of his most significant lecture demonstrations, in which Metzger presented his ideas around auto- creation and auto-destruction, were staged at Cambridge University in 1960 and 1965. The latter, organised by the Society of Arts and entitled The Chemical Revolution in Art, was a formative event in his career; Metzger first experimented here with his projections of liquid crystals that were later refined in his Liquid Crystal Environments.

    Gustav Metzger: LIFT OFF! is curated by Elizabeth Fisher in collaboration with Gustav Metzger and Kettle’s Yard.

    24 May - 31 August 2014 Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge


    Bringing together archive, film, sculpture and installations, an ambitious new exhibition at Kettle's Yard  will submerse visitors in Gustav Metzger’s world of creative experimentation and activism.

    When I was young I wanted art that would lift off – that would levitate, gyrate, bring together different, perhaps contradictory, aspects of my being.
    Gustav Metzger
    Liquid Crystal Environment

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    B-lymphocyte cell

    When our bodies are under attack from foreign organisms, such as bacteria and viruses, our immune system orchestrates a complex fight-back involving many separate parts. One important component of this response is a type of cell called the B-lymphocyte – it is this cell that is at the forefront of our defence as it identifies and attempts to neutralise invaders.

    The B-lymphocyte produces a protein called the B-cell receptor on its surface. The receptor recognises and attaches itself to molecules from the invading organisms, known as antigens. This triggers the B-lymphocyte to divide and to release specialised proteins called antibodies which neutralise the antigens.

    There are many aspects of this process that are still not well understood. One reason is because the B-cell receptor does not exist in isolation on the B-lymphocyte surface. Rather, it forms localised clusters together with a number of ‘molecular neighbours’. It is these local interactions that control how the lymphocytes divide and replicate and determine the strength of the antibody response. A better understanding of these interactions could ultimately lead to better control of the immune response – for example in vaccine development. However, the molecular contacts within the clusters are relatively weak, and so they are technically difficult to identify.

    Now, in an international collaboration, scientists at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry, the Cambridge Centre for Proteomics and the Institute of Biophysics in Beijing have developed a technique that allows some of these molecules to be detected. The experiments were performed primarily by Li Xue-Wen in Beijing and Dr Jo Rees in Cambridge, and are published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The method enables proteins in the immediate vicinity of the B-cell receptor to be chemically tagged in such a way that they can be more easily isolated. The tagged molecules can then be identified using a method called mass spectrometry.

    For this initial ‘proof of principle’ experiment, the researchers looked at the B-cell receptor on the surface of a chicken B-lymphocyte and identified molecules that were hitherto not thought to be involved in regulation of the receptor. They show that these molecules combine with the receptor to activate a class of proteins called integrins that are known to play an important role in the response of B-lymphocytes to antigens. Similar molecules occur on the human B-lymphocyte surface, and drugs active against integrins are already used to modulate the immune response. So a long-term implication of this work may be to identify new therapeutic targets for immune regulation.

    Professor Sarah Perrett from the Institute of Biophysics said: “In applying this technique, we have addressed a particularly challenging issue: how do we identify weak and transient, but potentially important, interactions between membrane proteins, which are notoriously difficult to work with?”

    Dr Tony Jackson from the Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge said: “There are many problems in cell-biology where we would like to identify proteins that group together on the cell surface, and our method could also be applied in these cases. It should therefore be of interest to a wide group of researchers in both the academic and industrial biomedical communities.”

    Funding for the research included the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

    A new technique developed at the University of Cambridge allows researchers to identify clusters of proteins on immune cells which are key to fighting off the body’s invaders.

    There are many problems in cell-biology where we would like to identify proteins that group together on the cell surface
    Tony Jackson

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    The new community in the North West Cambridge Development will be home to approximately 8,500 residents, and provide much needed affordable accommodation for University and College staff, as well as private housing, graduate accommodation, research space and a local centre including a primary school, community centre, GP surgery, hotel, supermarket and local shops. 

    These facilities, as well as new parks and open spaces, will be an asset to the new community and the surrounding area, and the development will be built to meet high standards of sustainability.

    Important community and social infrastructure will be delivered within the first phase of the development. 

    The designs for the supermarket, community centre, post-graduate housing and University key worker homes have recently been unanimously approved by the local authorities, and the main contracts will be placed in the coming months.

    To complement the University developments and to create a balanced community, the University is currently selecting development partners for the residential homes for private sale, hotel and senior living accommodation, which will also be part of the first phase of development. 

    The project team has now moved to Gravel Hill Farm on Madingley Rise.  The farm complex includes the renovation of a Victorian farmhouse, barns and the addition of a timber clad building which houses the project team, and includes a community room for local residents’ use and artists’ studios, where the development’s Public Art Strategy is being implemented. 

    The first exhibitions will be open to the public in June, which include a scale model of the first phase of development made out of cob by artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, and a structural 3-dimensional sculpture of the galaxy inspired by the Institute of Astronomy’s involvement with the GAIA project, created by Tania Kovats.

    Roger Taylor, Project Director of the North West Cambridge Development and Director of Estates Strategy for the University said: “A considerable number of milestones have been achieved across the project in the last year, and the benefits that this project will bring to the University and to Cambridge are now even nearer to being realised.”

    One of the first buildings that will be delivered on the site will be the primary school, which is due to open in September 2015. 

    The University of Cambridge Primary School Trust will operate the new primary school, which will be a training school linked to the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, forming part of its Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ rated PGCE programme.

    The University of Cambridge Primary School Trust is now recruiting a Headteacher who will provide innovative leadership for this flagship part of the development.  Details of the role are on the University’s website and the closing date is 9 June.

    Progress continues on the University’s largest single capital project, the North West Cambridge Development.

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  • 05/23/14--08:13: A new twist on soap films
  • The way in which soap films collapse and re-form when twisted or stretched could hold the key to predicting the formation and location of mathematical singularities, which can be seen in the motion of solar flares and other natural phenomena.

    Research on the processes by which soap films undergo transitions from one stable state to another has led to conjectures on the nature and location of the singular events that occur during the change of form, connecting two previously separate areas in mathematics.

    In mathematics, singularities occur when an equation or surface breaks down and ‘explodes’. In surfaces such as soap films, singularities occur when the surface collides with itself, changing shape in the blink of an eye.

    Researchers from the University of Cambridge have shown that identifying a special type of curve on the surface can help predict where these singularities are likely to occur in soap films, which could in turn aid in the understanding of singularities in the natural world. The results are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    We are all familiar with the simplest soap films, which are formed by dipping a wire loop into a soap solution: the flat surface that spans the wire and the bubbles which are formed when we blow on the film. With suitably shaped wires however, much more complex structures can be formed, such as Möbius strips.

    All static soap films are ‘minimal surfaces’, for they have the least area of all possible surfaces that span a given wire frame.

    What is less understood are the dynamic processes which occur when a minimal surface like a soap film is made unstable by deforming the supporting wire. The film typically moves in  a fraction of a second to a new configuration through a singular point, at which the surface collides with itself and changes its connectivity.

    These kinds of violent events also occur in the natural world – in fluid turbulence and in the motion of solar flares emanating from the sun – and one of the great challenges has been to predict where they will occur.

    In research supported by the EPSRC, a team from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics attempted to understand how to predict where the singularity will occur when soap films are twisted or stretched to a point of instability. For example, it is well-known that the surface spanning two separate wire loops will collapse to a singularity in between the loops.

    In previous work, the group had shown that Möbius strip singularity occurs not between the loops but at the wire frame, where there is a complex rearrangement of the surface. “What was unclear was whether there was an underlying mathematical principle by which this striking difference could be explained,” said Professor Raymond Goldstein, who collaborated with Dr Adriana Pesci, Professor Keith Moffatt, and James McTavish, a maths undergraduate, on the research.

    The team recognised that a geometric concept known as a systole might be the key to understanding where singularities will occur. A systole is the length of the shortest closed curve on surface that cannot be shrunk to a point while remaining on the surface. An example of this is found on a bagel, where the shortest such curve encircles the bagel like a handle. Mathematicians have studied the geometric properties of these curves in recent decades, establishing constraints on the relationship between the length of a systole and the area of the surface on which they lie.

    Using new laboratory experiments and computations, the researchers found evidence that the ultimate location of the singularities that occur when soap films collapse can be deduced from the properties of the systole. If the systolic curve loops around the wire frame, then the singularity occurs at the boundary, while if there is no such linking the singularity occurs in the bulk.

    “This is an example of experimental mathematics, in the sense that we are using laboratory studies to inform conjectures on mathematical connections,” said Professor Goldstein. “While they are certainly not rigorous, we hope they will stimulate further research into this new, developing area.”

    Soap films with complex shapes shed light on the formation of mathematical singularities, which occur in a broad range of fields.

    This is an example of experimental mathematics, in the sense that we are using laboratory studies to inform conjectures on mathematical connections
    Raymond Goldstein
    Soap film singularity

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    The first conservation-specific vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees has proved a vaccine against Ebola virus is both safe and capable of producing a robust immune response in chimpanzees.

    This unprecedented study, published in the journal PNAS, shows that ‘orphan’ vaccines - which never complete the expensive licensing process for human use - can be co-opted for use on wildlife and might be a godsend for highly endangered species such as gorillas and chimpanzees, say researchers.  

    They suggest that, by ending captive research in an effort to pay back an “ethical debt” to captive chimpanzees, the US Government is poised to “renege on an even larger debt to wild chimpanzees” at risk from viruses transmitted by tourists and researchers – as safety testing on captive chimpanzees is required before vaccines can be used in the wild.

    “The ape conservation community has long been non-interventionist, taking a ‘Garden of Eden’ approach to modern medicine for wild animals, but we ended Eden by destroying habitats and spreading disease,” said Dr Peter Walsh, the senior author on the study from the Division of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge, who conducted the trial at the New Iberia Research Centre in the US with researchers from the Centre, as well as the US Army, the University of Louisiana and the conservation charity Apes Incorporated (

    “Half of deaths among chimps and gorillas that live in proximity to humans are from our respiratory viruses. For us it’s a sore throat - for them it’s death.”

    “We need to be pragmatic about saving these animals now before they are wiped out forever, and vaccination could be a turning point. But park managers are adamant - and rightly so at this stage - that all vaccines are tested on captive apes before deployment in the wild. This means access to captive chimpanzees for vaccine trials.”

    Infectious diseases pose extinction-level threats to African ape species on a par with poaching and habitat loss, say researchers, with populations continuing to be devastated by malaria, anthrax and “spillover” respiratory viruses - as well as massive Ebola outbreaks which had killed roughly one third of the world gorilla population by 2007.

    They believe ‘orphan’ vaccines could be critical weapons in the fight for wild ape survival. But the ability to test new vaccines relies on research access to captive chimpanzees, and the study’s authors argue that it is vital to retain captive chimpanzees for vaccine trials, not for human use, but to help save key species of wild apes from extinction.

    The US Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering regulations that would end all biomedical testing on captive chimpanzees over the next few years - the US being the only developed country to allow such research. The study’s authors believe that the US should establish a “humanely housed” captive chimpanzee population dedicated solely to conservation research.

    The researchers administered captive chimpanzees with a new ‘virus-like particle’ (VLP) vaccine being developed by the biotech company Integrated Biotherapeutics for use on humans. While they did not challenge the vaccinated animals directly with Ebola, researchers tested whether antibodies harvested from the chimpanzees could protect mice against the deadly virus. They also monitored the chimpanzees in case the vaccine produced health complications.

    Results showed that the vaccine is safe in chimpanzees. The vaccinated chimpanzees developed ‘robust immune responses’, with virus-specific antibodies detected as early as 2 to 4 weeks after the first vaccination in some animals and within 2 weeks of the second vaccination in all animals.

    The authors note that these VLP vaccines currently require multiple administrations to reach “full potency”, but could prove the difference between survival and extinction for species that are highly endangered or immunologically fragile but also easy to vaccinate.

    “There is a large pool of experimental vaccines that show excellent safety and immunity profiles in primate trails but are never licensed for human use,” said Walsh.

    “We’ve demonstrated that it’s feasible for very modestly funded ape conservationists to adapt these orphan vaccines into conservation tools, but the ability to trial vaccines on captive chimps is vital. Ours is the first conservation-related vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees – and it may be the last.

    “Although Congress specifically instructed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to consider the conservation value of captive chimpanzee research, no findings on its possible impact were presented. If the biomedical laboratories that have the facilities and inclination to conduct controlled vaccine trials ‘liquidate’ their chimpanzee populations, there will be nowhere left to do conservation-related trials.”

    Study illustrates “high conservation potential” of vaccines for endangered wild primates devastated by viral disease, but highlights need for access to captive chimpanzees so vaccines can be trialled before being administered in the wild.

    If biomedical laboratories ‘liquidate’ their chimpanzee populations, there will be nowhere left to do conservation-related trials
    Peter Walsh
    Common chimpanzee

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    Postdoctoral research associate Preti Taneja has been chosen as one of ten winners in a prestigious competition to find the talented academic broadcasters of the future, run by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

    Taneja was selected from a strong field of over 600 early career academics, who were invited to pitch an idea for a radio programme that would bring their research to life for a diverse audience. Taneja made the grade for her work looking at intercultural and inter-disciplinary re-interpretations of Shakespeare.

    “I’m very excited to have been chosen. It means that I’m going to join a group of people who really care about ideas and about communicating them to the wider public, and that’s why I wanted to be an academic,” she said.

    The New Generation Thinkers will spend a year working with presenters and producers from Radio 3 to develop their ideas into programmes, as well as appearing at the station’s Free Thinking Festival of Ideas in November at Sage, Gateshead, and even having the chance to  develop their ideas for television, making short films for BBC Arts Online.  

    Taneja is currently a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Research Associate at Jesus College, working with Professor Juliet Mitchell, a leading authority on psychoanalysis and gender studies. Prof Mitchell is currently writing on psychoanalysis and sibling rivalry, using Shakespeare’s plays as a metaphor to illustrate the theory, and Taneja’s expertise and critical understanding of contemporary Shakespearean studies is invaluable.  

    “Literature has often been used as metaphor to talk about psychoanalytic theory - take the Oedipus complex, based on Greek myth, and Freud’s love of Shakespeare. Working with Professor Mitchell has brought home to me again just how radical a writer Shakespeare was. If you take Twelfth Night or As You Like It, they show an astonishing level of understanding of fundamental aspects of sexuality and bisexuality, “ said Taneja.

    She recently completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, which focused on King Lear as a cultural force in India, looking at how the play was used by different thinkers over time to construct identity. The play came to India as part of the colonial project of imperial cultural domination, but was quickly appropriated and adapted, becoming on the one hand a marker of being civilised and ‘pleasing the colonial master’, and on the other a way to subvert the master’s power.

    “The great thing about this scheme is that it allows you to pitch lots of different ideas. Even the selection process itself was invaluable, as the applicants were all of such a high calibre and so passionate about their subjects. The spoken word content on BBC Radio 3 is inspiring because it goes into such depth, and I am looking forward to this exhilarating opportunity to draw out different aspects of my research in ways that will appeal to a variety of audiences.”

    Cambridge academic Preti Taneja is named as one of the AHRC/BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Thinkers.

    I’m very excited to have been chosen. It means that I’m going to join a group of people who really care about ideas and about communicating them to the wider public, and that’s why I wanted to be an academic.
    Preti Taneja
    Dr Preti Taneja

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  • 05/27/14--06:15: Sperm against the stream
  • Like salmon travelling upstream to spawn, sperm cells are extremely efficient at swimming against the current. In a new study, researchers from the University of Cambridge and MIT have identified the physical mechanisms which may allow sperm to navigate inside the human body and stay on course through a variety of environments.

    The research may help us to understand how some sperm travel such long distances, through difficult terrain, to reach and fertilise an egg. The results are published today in the journal eLife.

    Of the hundreds of millions of sperm cells that begin the journey up the Fallopian tube, only a few hardy travellers will ever reach their destination. Not only do the cells have to swim in the right direction over distances that are around 1,000 times their own length, but they are exposed to different chemicals and currents along the way.

    While we know that sperm cells can ‘smell’ chemicals given off by the egg once they get very close to it, this does not explain how they navigate for the majority of their journey, said Dr Jörn Dunkel of MIT, who conducted the research while a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge.

    “We wanted to know which physical mechanisms could be responsible for navigation,” said Dunkel, who carried out the research in collaboration with Dr Vasily Kantsler, now at the University of Warwick, Martyn Blayney of Bourn Hall Clinic and Professor Raymond Goldstein of Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. “If you think of salmon for example, they can swim against the stream, and the question was whether something similar could really be confirmed for human sperm cells.”

    “There have been qualitative reports for over 100 years that sperm cells can swim upstream, but it is only recently that the role of surfaces bounding the flow has been established,” said Goldstein.

    However, observing sperm cells swimming within the human body itself is no easy task. To understand what the cells are capable of, the researchers built a series of artificial micro-channels of different sizes and shapes, into which they inserted the sperm. They were then able to modify the flow of fluid through the tubes, to investigate how the cells responded to different current speeds.

    They discovered that at certain flow speeds, the sperm cells were able to swim very efficiently upstream. “We found that if you create the right flow velocities, you can observe them swimming upstream for several minutes,” Dunkel said. “They’re very robust.”

    Additionally, the researchers observed that the sperm were not swimming in a straight line upstream, but in a spiralling motion, along the walls of the channel. The sperm cells react to the difference in the speed of current near the walls of the chamber - where the fluid is attracted to the surface and is therefore at its slowest – and the free-flowing centre of the tube.

    “Our findings highlight the very subtle interplay between the geometry of the sperm cells - the size of the head versus the side-to-side amplitude of the tail undulations - and their response to fluid flow near the chamber walls. A key component of this research was the development of a detailed mathematical model capable of explaining our diverse observations,” said Goldstein.

    If biologists are able to observe similar fluid flow speeds within the Fallopian tube, it could help to confirm whether sperm cells are indeed using this mechanism to navigate through the body.

    Not only would this improve our understanding of human reproduction, but it could also one day allow us to design new diagnostic tools and more efficient artificial insemination techniques. Reproduction specialists could take sperm samples and artificially recreate the conditions within the body to identify the cells that are the best swimmers, in a bid to pre-select those most likely to succeed.

    Additionally, the researchers can experiment with different fluid viscosities within the micro-channels, to determine which results in the strongest upstream swimming effect. “So the idea would be to fine-tune the properties of the fluid medium that the sperm cells are contained in, before you insert it into the body, so that you know the cells can achieve optimal upstream swimming,” said Dunkel.

    While much more work is still needed to determine if sperm cells behave in the same way in the much more complex terrain inside the Fallopian tube itself, the research gives us an important new insight into a mechanism that sperm may be using to navigate inside the human body.

    In the meantime, the researchers plan to begin investigating whether sperm cells can work together to reach the egg. “There is a commonly held belief that there is competition between sperm cells, with the fittest reaching the egg first,” said Dunkel. “But we found in this paper that sperm always accumulate at the surface of the tube, and you can end up with a very high concentration of sperm cells, so there could actually be cooperation among these cells that allows them to swim faster collectively.”

    The research was supported by the European Research Council.

    Story adapted from MIT press release

    Research may explain how sperm travel long distances, through difficult terrain, to reach an egg.

    Our findings highlight the very subtle interplay between the geometry of the sperm cells and their response to fluid flow near the chamber walls
    Raymond Goldstein
    Stylised image of swimming sperm cells

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