Willem Ouwehand recently held a very enjoyable celebration of completing 1000 Genomes for patients with rare diseases. This is the pilot phase of the Prime Minister’s 100,000 Genomes Project. It was held in the gardens at Trinity Hall and was a fantastic way of thanking the team who have succeeded in getting to this point. It was a beautifully sunny evening. Talking to people who had come up from London for the event you could feel just how impressed they were with the lovely Cambridge environment. It wasn’t hard to understand why Willem decided to hold the event there, overlooking The Backs, rather than on the Biomedical Campus! In Willem’s speech he revealed that the party was slightly premature as it was arguable whether the 1000th Genome had in fact been completed; I remain slightly uncertain about the precise position but think if it hadn’t been completed by then it has now. As someone who has done quite a bit of work on rare diseases I would have to admit that I was initially rather sceptical following the Prime Minister’s announcement. It is good to see that the initial broad concept is now being implemented in a very sensible way which I think will deliver very important scientific knowledge and will also deliver useful information for patients. One significant anxiety has been how the information will be stored, analysed and interpreted in a way that is useful in healthcare. A crucial aspect is maintaining appropriate security and confidentiality. Although we should be careful about over-claiming, I think the progress on this huge national project is very substantially due to contributions from Cambridge. Willem pointed out that Cambridge was a good place to do this for two different reasons. First, since the Middle Ages the University has been a leading repository for new knowledge. Second, since the middle of the last century it has played a leading role in understanding how information is encoded in DNA and understanding how to turn that into useful knowledge for humankind. He pointed out that the Cambridge colleges originally had chained libraries which you could go to to use the books, but you could not take them away. An interesting current analogy, which is being developed by many different people, is that big data containing confidential information relevant to the health of humans should be available in reading libraries but not lending libraries.
Another interesting evening in a Cambridge college was at Trinity where a modern historian took me and others to see a fascinating exhibition about Trinity in the First World War. What I’ve found absolutely extraordinary was that Nevile’s Court underneath the Wren Library had been used as a hospital for 240 beds at the beginning of the War. This was the forerunner of the Eastern General Hospital which subsequently opened on the University Library site. Injured soldiers returning from the front were in beds that were under cover but would have had an extraordinary amount of fresh air as the only thing closing off the cloister were sheets that were pinned up. This went on until October by which time it must have been pretty cold!
I have mentioned in previous newsletters that many people have worked hard on applications to the MRC Clinical Research Infrastructure call. Although the results have not yet officially been announced our understanding is that we have been very successful and I am delighted to say that this will bring a lot of new infrastructure to the Campus, especially latest imaging equipment. Another major strand of our bids relates to applying next generation sequencing technology in the clinical setting.
Finally, I would just like to draw people’s attention to The Lister Institute Research Prizes which are worth £200,000 each. Candidates must have between 3 and 10 years of postdoctoral experience on 1st October 2015. Details are available at www.lister-institute.org.uk