Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy.
There are 263 people waiting for a heart transplant in the UK (1). Many die in the three years it can take to wait for a suitable donor. Transplant hearts usually come from people who are brain dead, but whose hearts are still beating. To try and save more people, researchers at Papworth Hospital have worked out a way to re-start hearts in people who have died. They re-start the heart and keep it nourished to reduce muscle damage before transplanting it. The technique could increase the number of available hearts by at least a quarter.
This story first caught my interest because it is local. Papworth Hospital is the largest cardiothoracic hospital in the country and includes the UK's main heart and lung transplant centre. It is just 11 miles down the road from Murray Edwards and in 2018, will move to the Addenbrooke's Biomedical Campus, making it even easier for our students and postgraduate researchers to gain exposure to cutting-edge research and clinical practice.
The story of non-beating hearts also reminded me of the need to increase efforts to prevent heart disease and reduce the number of people needing a transplant. Cardiovascular disease is still the UK’s biggest killer. I previously worked as an epidemiologist, finding patterns in disease among large groups of people. My research involved building statistical models to predict who was at high risk of a heart attack or stroke, and then developing and evaluating ways to prevent this from happening. The solution seems simple: eat less, exercise more and quit smoking. But health campaigns usually try to get people to change their behaviour. And they are not very successful. Unhealthy behaviour has become the norm and working with individuals is not enough. We need to shift from focusing on individuals and create strategies for whole populations. My research encouraged different academic, government, industry, and health care experts to collaborate, and it looked at the impact of issues such as food supply, transport policy, advertising, and labelling. Not at all what I thought I’d be involved with when I attended my first epidemiology lecture!
Studying a STEMM subject at University can open up a huge range of careers that you never even knew existed. Cambridge will soon host Europe’s largest biomedical campus, filled with world leading scientists and clinicians, where you can work on ground-breaking surgical techniques or tackle epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We need biologists, chemists, engineers, medics, social scientists and economists to tackle the health problems facing the world today.
I’ll be talking more about this within our College’s new one-day STEMM conference ‘She Talks Science: Aiming High’ in April 2016. (Booking will open via this site in the Autumn.) Do come, visit the College, join in the discussions and learn more about the role of science in transforming lives.
To find out more about organ donation, please visit: http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/
Dr Rebecca Simmons
Dr Rebecca Simmons is a Fellow at Murray Edwards and teaches epidemiology and biostatistics to first year medical and veterinary undergraduates.