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An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

Session 1: Tackling the current pandemic (9.10 - 10.10) – Chair: Professor Daniela de Angelis

In pursuit of actionable information from SARS-CoV-2 genomes

Professor Sharon Peacock – Professor of Public Health and Microbiology, University of Cambridge and Director of the COVID-19 genomics UK Consortium

The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium was formed in April 2020 to provide a networked SARS-CoV-2 sequencing capability across the UK. A key objective of the consortium was to provide genome data that when combined with metadata (such as time and place of sampling) generated information that led to interventions and informed public health policy. In this talk, I will describe examples where this has occurred over the last 2 years, including its application to investigate SARS-CoV-2 importations, transmission, and the detection and evaluation of variants of concern.

Real-time monitoring of the SARS-COV2 pandemic

Professor Daniela de Angelis – Professor of Statistical Science for Health, University of Cambridge and Deputy Director and Programme Leader at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit (MRC-BSU)


More than Words: Leaders' Speech and Risky Behavior during a pandemic

Professor Tiago Cavalcanti – Professor of Economics, University of Cambridge

This research investigates whether the anti-scientific rhetoric of modern populists can induce followers to engage in risky behavior. We gather electoral information, credit card expenses, and geo-localized mobile phone data for approximately 60 million devices in Brazil. After the president publicly dismissed the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic and challenged scientific recommendations, social distancing in pro-government localities declined. Consistently, credit card expenses increased immediately. Results are driven by localities with higher media penetration levels, active Twitter accounts, and a larger proportion of Evangelical Christians, a critical electoral group.

Aerosol dispersion and the role of ventilation in buildings

Professor Andy Woods – Professor at BP Institute for Multiphase Flow

In this talk, I will explore some of the processes responsible for the transport of aerosol through buildings, associated with both the ventilation flows and the movement of people. We will present data from small scale laboratory experiments and from buildings, in which we have explored some of the dominant mixing and transport processes. This leads to insights about occupancy levels, people spacing, and protocols for use of indoor spaces when airborne aerosols are being generated by some of the occupants, in terms of reducing risks of transmission. 


Session 2: Learning from past and hidden pandemics (11.00 - 12.00) – Chair: Dr Lucy Weinert

A Blast of the Stars: from Heavenly Influences to Planetary Health

Dr Mary Dobson – Medical Historian, Former Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford

The threat of an imminent global pandemic, given the name ‘Disease X’ by the WHO in 2018, was highlighted by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in a report only three months before COVID-19 struck. One fear was that Disease X might be a strain of influenza with the same devastating consequences as ‘Spanish Flu’ a century earlier. When COVID-19 arrived, not only were scientists suddenly thrust into the media spotlight, but medical historians were in demand to draw lessons from the past. This talk will highlight three themes that link our experience of COVID-19 with past epidemics and pandemics. First: the medical mysteries of the origin and spread of infectious diseases. These include the plagues of antiquity and the Black Death, as well as influenza itself (from the Italian meaning ‘heavenly influences’), and ideas attributing this ‘universal distemper’ to ‘a blast of the stars’. Second: ‘echoes’ from the past in terms of public and personal health measures, together with medical interventions, not least vaccination. Third: the pressing challenges surrounding ‘Planetary Health’, making it ever more essential that scientists and historians share their complementary perspectives to mitigate threats to humanity that still lie in the future.

A tale of two pandemics: in love and war

Professor Nicholas Thomson – Head of Parasites and Microbes Programme and Group Leader, Wellcome Sanger Institute


What does "Transmission" actually mean? How to reconcile genomics and epidemiology in Mycobacteria

Professor Julian Parkhill FRS FMedSci – Professor at Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge

Genomics is being increasingly used to identify and analyse outbreaks of bacterial disease, as genetic similarity provides unequivocal evidence of the common ancestry of bacteria infecting different hosts. Such a relationship implies transmission from one host to another, or from a third party to both. However, such inferences can be in conflict with epidemiological evidence when no link can be found between the hosts. How do we reconcile these two sources of evidence? This problem will be discussed with reference to the human pathogens Mycobacterium abscess and Mycobacterium avium.

Hidden Epidemics Research Network

Dr Charlotte Hammer – Research Affiliate at Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge

Dr Freya Jephcott – Senior Research Associate at Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge

Hidden Epidemics is an interdisciplinary research network interested in characterising processes of epidemiological obfuscation. ‘Epidemiological obfuscation’ refers to the myriad of ways that public health practices and practitioners can end up obscuring large burdens of disease. Over the last year, Hidden Epidemics has hosted a fortnightly talk series and discussion group, bringing together researchers from across the world to discuss various case studies of epidemiological obfuscation. In addition to continuing with the talk series, Hidden Epidemics will soon be holding its first in-person technical workshop. Finally, this year a number of research projects associated with the Hidden Epidemics Research Network are commencing, including some large cross-institutional projects aimed at tackling gaps in detecting and differentiating acute febrile illnesses in resource-limited settings in order to improve surveillance systems and signal detection.

Session 3: Tackling AMR through novel therapies (13.00 - 13.45) – Chair: Dr Sarah Caddy


Professor Andres Floto – presenting a collaboration with Professor Sir Mark Welland


Drug efflux machines and how they work

Professor Ben Luisi – Professor at Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge

Efflux pumps are nanomachines that contribute to multidrug resistance by actively extruding antimicrobials from the cell. In Gram-negative bacterial species, some of these pumps form dynamic multi-protein assemblies that span the cell envelope and drive antimicrobial transport. We have obtained high-resolution structures of two representative classes of bacterial multidrug pump assemblies in different transport-active states and with inhibitor bound, providing clues for strategies to inhibit pump activity. Structural analysis of an analogous system from yeast provides insight into the conformational switches that drive drug movement in pathogenic fungi. The structural data provide models for transport mechanisms in widely occurring efflux pump systems.

Total Synthesis of E. coli with a 61-codon Genome Enables Viral Resistance and the Programmable Synthesis of Unnatural Polymers

Dr Wes Robertson – Postdoctoral scientist at Centre for Chemical and Synthetic Biology, MRC LMB

It has been widely hypothesized that orthogonal genetic codes - with reduced codon sets and deleted transfer RNAs (tRNAs)—might create a genetic firewall to viral infection and enable sense codon reassignment. To test these hypotheses, we created a synthetic bacterial genome with a compressed genetic code that removes two sense codons and one stop codon, thus allowing us to delete their corresponding tRNAs and release factor. The resulting cells operate on a 61-codon genetic code - this creates a genetic firewall to the canonical genetic code and yields cells completely resistant to a cocktail of viruses. Notably, we reassigned these 'blank codons' to non-canonical amino acids (ncAAs) to enable the synthesis of proteins containing three distinct ncAAs. This provides a platform for the programmable synthesis of novel classes of unnatural polymers, including diverse macrocycles decorated with new-to-nature chemistries.

Session 4: The future of AMR (15.30 - 16.45) – Chair: Professor Andres Floto

Approaches to Antibacterial Discovery

Professor David Spring – Professor of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, University of Cambridge and EPSRC Established Career Research Fellow

New antibacterials are needed due to the the emergence of pathogens resistant to all available antibiotics. My talk will give a brief summary of approaches for new antibacterial discovery, and highlight reasons for the lack of serious industry involvement.

The wonder of hedgehogs: Emergence of methicillin resistance predates the clinical use of antibiotics.

Professor Mark Holmes – Professor of Microbial Genomics and Veterinary Science and Associate Dean for Research, University of Cambridge


AMR: surviving the silent pandemic

Professor Dame Sally Davies (UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance, Master Trinity College Cambridge)

New data released this year shows that AMR killed nearly 1.3 million people in 2019. This makes AMR a leading cause of death, on a worsening trajectory, simultaneously putting our food and environment systems at risk of collapse and insecurity. In this keynote speech, Dame Sally Davies will discuss the need for collaborative action and innovation to tackle the global challenge of AMR. She will reflect on global progress through the G7 and United Nations Global Leaders Group, and the innovative solutions being tried and tested in all corners of the world. With many challenges and gaps remaining, Dame Sally will also recommend key global opportunities, and the steps that local, national and global stakeholders from all sectors can take to make further progress together.