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    UCL cohorts, biobanks and big data

    By Guest Blogger, on 29 March 2017

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    Written by Rob Davies, Public Affairs Manager for CLOSER, UCL Institute of Education

    What are the opportunities and challenges facing cohort and longitudinal studies? Do we need more biobanks or more extensive (and imaginative) use of existing ones? What more can we do to capitalise on administrative records and other forms of big data?

    These were some of the questions discussed at UCL cohorts, biobanks and big data symposium, which brought together researchers from across UCL and further afield to showcase activity in this area.

    CohortsNo other country in the world is tracking as many people and in such detail throughout their lives

    Professor Dame Anne Johnson introduced the afternoon and how the cohort studies are a resource not just for the nation but for the world.  More than 2.2 million people in the UK are currently participating in population based cohort studies, with 15 of these hosted at UCL.

    These include the oldest and newest cohort studies and CLOSER, the UK longitudinal studies consortium, which is charged with maximising their use, value and impact both at home and abroad.

    Past, present and future: innovation in cohort studies

    This first session began with Helen Pearson, author of The Life Project, who explained how a chance encounter with the MRC 1946 National Survey of Health and Development Cohort website, the largest study of human development in the world, led to five years researching and writing about the British cohort studies.

    “The cohort studies have influenced and shaped policy on pregnancy, birth, schooling, adult education, foetal development, chronic conditions and ageing and touched the lives of everyone in the country today,” she said.

    The ways in which cohort studies collect data from participants have changed over time, said Professor Alison Park, who discussed use of new technological advances, including wearable devices.

    Professor Nishi Chaturvedi argued that to achieve precision medicine we need to pay more attention to the phenotype and the role cohorts can play in this.

    Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 11.54.59Professor Ruth Gilbert described ADRC’s work on approaches to data linkage and the enormous value in administrative data, either in its own right or when linked to survey data.

    Finally, Professor Caroline Sabin introduced the UK Collaborative HIV Cohort (UK CHIC) Study and explained the value of linking clinic and surveillance databases for HIV research.

    Making the case for cohorts, biobanks and big data

    In this ‘Question Time’ session speakers made the case for cohorts, biobanks and big data.

    Cohorts are vital, nationally representative, scientific resources which enable us to understand the link between early life circumstances and life’s many and varied outcomes, argued Professor Alissa Goodman.

    Professor Sir Rory Collins spoke in favour of large scale studies and biological repositories, pointing out the value of establishing prospective cohorts in different populations who have different types of diseases and risk factors.

    TScreen Shot 2017-03-29 at 11.54.27he case for big data and potential for access to real time data was made by Professor Harry Hemingway in the context of the new UK health and biomedical informatics research institute, Health Data Research UK. This institute will, for the first time in the world, incorporate on a national scale the whole breadth of data science research aimed at improving human health.

    Opportunities and challenges for investment in cohorts, biobanks and big data

    Professor Graham Hart chaired the final session with some of the funders of major longitudinal and cohort studies.

    Representatives from the MRC, ESRC, British Heart Foundation and Wellcome Trust emphasised how cohorts are hugely influential, a vital part of the national infrastructure and uniquely placed to study the interplay of factors in a population over time.

    We heard about how the funding landscape has changed, with ever increasing pressures on budgets, and the need to bring cohorts together, citing CLOSER as an important initiative in this space.

    Increasingly funders are working in partnership to fund these large investments. A recurring message was the value of talking to funders before submitting bids, the importance of an interdisciplinary approach and data access and discoverability.

    Those interested in the use of new technologies can get a flavour of what’s on offer at two events organised by CLOSER in May.

     

    Metabolism & Society: A Symposium on Food, Culture, and Metabolic Health at the UCL Institute of Child Health

    By Guest Blogger, on 1 March 2017

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    By Paola Garcia-Trevijano, UCL Biomedical Sciences

    Metabolism’s impact on society is such that the two are in constant interaction.  With this in mind, the Symposium on Food, Culture and Metabolic Health by Metabolism and Society on 16 February brought together a group of academics from several departments in UCL and the Francis Crick Institute.

    Complex problems like metabolic disease require interdisciplinary solutions, and fostering such interactions was the goal of this innovative symposium.

    Professor Frances Brodsky, Director of the Division of Biosciences, opened the symposium together with Professor Geraint Rees, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences.Picture1

    In addition to three keynote lectures, the day featured short talks followed by a panel focused on fostering potential interdisciplinary collaborations.

    The symposium ended on a lighter note with Chris Shipton, a live illustrator, presenting the sketches he put together throughout the day.

    At the close of the symposium, Professor David Price, Vice-Provost (Research), announced the creation of a new interdisciplinary Research Domain focused on food and metabolism.

    Putting the balance back in diet: the nutritional geometry of metabolic disease

    Professor Steve Simpson, academic director of the Charles Perkins Centre of the University of Sydney, showed that the tendency to stick to a constant protein intake contributes to over consumption in fats and carbohydrates, due to the introduction of ultra-processed foods.

    A few solutions include intermittent fasting, protein appetite dampening drugs, and surprisingly, a diet low in protein and high in carbohydrates which, despite the associated weight gain, was shown to lead to the healthiest individuals.

    Session 1 – Present: where are we now?

    In the first session, Dr Paul Chadwick spoke on the importance of developing an efficient way of communicating with different populations affected by metabolic problems. He introduced the behaviour change wheel, which aims to provide a common approach.

    Dr Joanne Santini, who presented her work on the effect of arsenic contaminated water on health and the human microbiome, identified the importance of behavioural counselling in preventing and dealing with arsenic poisoning as well as insulin resistance.

    Professor Nishi Chaturvedi’s work has shown that different population characteristics suggest different causes behind insulin resistance, highlighting the importance of clinical treatment tailored to different populations.  In addition, linking research in insulin resistance and mitochondrial pathways to tumour research was deemed to be promising, with key connections between the work of Professor Michael Duchen and Dr Mariia Yuneva.

    The taste of spoons and other inedible objects

    Mark Miodownik, Director of the UCL Institute of Making, gave a keynote presentation on the way different materials influence the experience of eating: gold and chrome taste the most neutral, zinc the sweetest. All these features could be used to not only enhance our enjoyment of food but perhaps reduce the amounPicture2t of savoury, yet detrimental ingredients (e.g. sugar) that we over-indulge in.

    Past: how did we get here?

    This session focused on the past to look for guidance on how to shape the future to our benefit.

    Evolution in terms of the metabolic network (Dr Markus Rasler) as well as in terms of our adaptation to diet throughout time (Professor Mark Thomas) were considered.

    We can also learn from a shorter time frame by following obesity across generations (Professor Rebecca Hardy).

    Professor Sue Hamilton discussed the idea of comparing our microbiome to that of the Easter Island population, which thrived with remarkable health and energy on very simple and restricted diets.  Dr Filipe Cabreiro presented his work on the gut microbiome, which the panel felt was an important part of metabolic health, and discussed ways this could be examined from ancient remains to modern humans.
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    Wellbeing@UCL launch event

    By Guest Blogger, on 26 January 2017

    pencil-iconWritten by Faaiza Bokhari (UCL Occupational Health & Wellbeing)

    UCL President & Provost, Professor Michael Arthur and Karen Smith, UCL Wellbeing Consultant

    UCL President & Provost, Professor Michael Arthur
    and Karen Smith, UCL Wellbeing Consultant

    Wellbeing isn’t just about ourselves, but also about what we can do for others – this was something that UCL President & Provost, Professor Michael Arthur was keen to emphasise at the launch of Wellbeing@UCL – UCL’s five-year wellbeing strategy for the whole of the UCL community.

    On 18 January, I attended the launch in the South Cloisters as a member of the UCL Occupational Health and Wellbeing team, which has been working on the wellbeing strategy as part of a new holistic approach to occupational health. More than 500 staff and students attended on the day, demonstrating the importance of wellbeing to our staff and students.

    The buzz around the event was fantastic, and it was great to see so many people coming together for something that could prove really valuable to the community. Attendees were interested to find out more about UCL’s future plans, particularly the six ‘pillars’ of the Wellbeing@UCL strategy, and spending time on the Occupational Health and Wellbeing stand gave me the opportunity to connect with people one-on-one.

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    UCL Festival of Culture: Urban Well-being

    By James L Russell, on 31 May 2016

    urban-wellbeingAs part of the UCL Festival of Culture, Dr Gustav Milne – Honorary senior lecturer in the UCL Institute of Archaeology –  gave a talk on Tuesday 24th May, entitled ‘Urban well-being: How to live paleolithically-correct lives in a 21st Century City’.

    The idea that we as humans are not necessarily designed for the urban environments that many of us now dwell in is not necessarily a new one, but the extent to which this affects our health and life expectancy is more strikingly marked than might be expected.

    Gustav began by outlining how our biology evolved thousands of years ago to support the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and explained that while the environments we live in have changed, our basic physiology hasn’t. We were told that our biological legacy dates back 6 million years – our physiology and lung system have not really developed since then.

    Gustav mentioned the Grand Challenges project that UCL Archaeology has partnered in with Transport for London and Arsenal football club, along with several other organisations, which examined the health profiles of different social groups and populations within Greater London.

    The research carried out for this project discovered a noticeable difference in life-expectancy between residents in boroughs with large areas of green space, from those who live which are densely built-up and populated. Contrary to what we often hear, the figures obtained during this research indicate that it’s not about social class or income but where you live.

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