Difficult Dialogues 2017: A Summary

By Sujitha Selvarajah, on 22 February 2017

Sujitha is a UCL global health graduate and final year medical student

UCL was knowledge partner for Difficult Dialogues 2017, which attracted a wide range of speakers Over 250 people from across the world participated in Difficult Dialogues last week, exploring issues like access to healthcare, the recent India budget speech, and the intrinsic link between sociocultural beliefs and health.

To say that this is a comprehensive summary of the conference would be a disservice to the complexity of the discussions that took place in Goa.  This blog will explore three points of discussion that I believe hold significance for health not only in India, but around the world.

  1. Whose responsibility is health?

“Be proactive and responsible for your own health.  What you can do for your own health, no one else can do.” – Manisha Koirala, Bollywood actress and breast cancer survivor

Manisha Koirala’s message of taking responsibility for your health being key to disease prevention is a familiar one, for most of us know who you avoid if you eat an apple a day. My question is what if not everyone has the same access this apple? What if it is an uneven playing field? Some have orchards in their back gardens, others have to travel for days across cities to even lay eyes on an apple and some don’t even know what an apple is, let alone its significance in keeping the doctor away.

The question I’m asking is what about the role of the state, in providing education, transport, access and facilities etc, in providing the context in which individuals can then take responsibility for their health. There needs to be a balance between the onus being on the individual and the responsibility of the state in providing an environment conducive to individuals making healthy choices.

UCL Professors Monica Lakhanpaul and Marie Lall were among speakers at Difficult Dialogues 2017As Dr Aarathi Prasad, of UCL’s Office of the Vice-Provost (Research), said: “Where people live and how they live, greatly impacts their health.” Being a UCL student, I was introduced to the social determinants of health very early on in my career in a lecture by the pioneer Professor Sir Michael Marmot.  It continues to have a lasting influence on how I question and understand health.  Why don’t we look at the causes of the causes? Why is it that some people smoke more than others? How can there be a 20-year difference in life expectancy between two neighbouring towns? Looking at it from this perspective, it is not easy in the sense that there are no quick solutions. It requires multi-sectoral input. Unfortunately there is no single vaccine, no magic bullet that will provide universal health coverage. The complexity of this was touched upon by Professor Venkatapuram of King’s College London, in the opening panel discussion with the poignant question: “ How do we make for example, the minister of transport, care about health?”

  1. How do we make health a priority for policy makers?

There was a lot of discussion about the recent India budget speech, with many calls for the Indian government to increase its public spending on health and the key role of civil society and citizens in making health a priority for policy makers. This was something that came up numerous times over the three days. The role of the media in bridging this gap between policy makers and the rest of society is central to this discussion. Abantika Ghosh, journalist and writer for the Indian Express put forward her views on the relationship between health and journalism in India: “There is a huge readership for stories about scientific breakthroughs. Something that may not make it to the hospitals in the next ten years generates a lot of excitement because it is something exotic. It is like reading science fiction. On the other hand public health, which is so much more important, so much emergent a need, gets much more neglected in the media space.”

This difficulty expressed by Ghosh is unlikely to be experienced by India alone, but also shared across the world. As Dame Anne Johnson (UCL’s Vice-Dean International for Population Health Sciences) said: “The problems India facing are global problems – we all have them.”

The media has the potential to play a huge role in raising awareness of health issues among the public and also in holding the government accountable. The work of Sohini Chattopadhyay, an independent journalist, is a clear example of this. Chattopadhyay carried out an undercover investigation unearthing shocking findings about the quality of care and experiences of women during childbirth in a particular labour room in Calcutta. Whilst not quite meeting the Millennium Development Goal for reduction in Maternal Mortality, India has seen a significant decrease. As Chattopadhyay stated: “That kind of improvement is incredible, but ten years down the line, we have to talk about a little more than ‘Is the woman alive after childbirth?’ We have to start talking about qualitative experiences.”

  1. Is grassroots organisation a substitute for policy?

This was in fact a question asked by David Osrin, UCL Professor of Global Health, during the arts and health workshop. The primary aim of the summit was to collate at least one policy recommendation from each panel discussion and before presenting them to the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. For me, the numerous examples of existing projects making a tangible impact on communities was at the forefront of what makes Difficult Dialogues a force for change.

UCL partners with a range of organisations in IndiaDelan Devakumar’s work crafting short films on topics like child marriage and organising screenings to raise awareness and catalyse discussion is just one of many examples.  Professor Osrin’s work in the Dharavi Slums with the Alley Galli Biennale is a beautiful demonstration of how art can intersect with community and health.  The two-year process led to an exhibition, blending art and science to share information on urban health and showcase the contribution of the Dharavi people to Mumbai’s economic and cultural life. With four themes – art, health, recycling and vitality – the Biennale invited Dharavi residents to meet, educate themselves on urban health, learn new skills, and produce locally resonant artworks that were authentic, honest and relevant.

Recently UCL partnered with Symbiosis International University to evaluate existing health, education and sanitation interventions within the Pune district. Devaki Gokhale, Assistant Professor at Symbiosis University said: “This partnership with UCL is an exhilarating experience, the sharing of ideas, thought provoking discussions, listening to the needs and concerns expressed by villagers from a different lens and, through a holistic approach, feels prolific.”

Community interventions and policy are not mutually exclusive, and nor should they be. However, there are distinct gaps where policy is far from having a real impact on people’s lives. This is the ideal space for projects like these to flourish and make a difference.

Difficult Dialogues tackled a range of health issuesAt the heart of all these grassroots projects are partnerships. Whether between institutions, or even on an individual basis. It is clear that we have a lot to learn from each other. Sneh Bhargava, India’s first female radiologist and recent director of the All India Medical Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS), was a figure Ina Goel (UCL PhD student) learnt about and looked up to in school. When they met, Ina was in awe of her work as a trailblazer in the field of medicine and Sneh was fascinated by Ina’s essay on universal health care.

When health is something so clearly impacted by politics, economics, and sociocultural factors, maybe the bringing together of different perspectives and background to achieve common goals, should be an approach taken not only in the community and among universities, but also at state level. Perhaps the key is to figure out how to make the transport minister care about health after all?

UCL European collaboration awarded €20m for big health data research in cardiovascular disease

By Sophie Vinter, on 20 February 2017

The BigData@Heart research team has secured €20 million research funding from the European Innovative Medicines Initiative.

A UCL collaboration with European partners has been awarded €20 million research funding from the European Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) to help improve treatment for cardiovascular disease.

BigData@Heart is a consortium that comprises the UCL Institutes of Health Informatics and Cardiovascular Science, the European Society of Cardiology, European patient organisations, universities from Utrecht, Berlin, Cambridge, Valencia, Stockholm, Hamburg, Birmingham and Uppsala and various pharmaceutical and technology partners.

The research programme will use healthcare data to deliver better care for people with heart attacks, heart failure and the commonest heart rhythm disturbance, atrial fibrillation.

Despite major progress in treatments, these conditions present a substantial burden to the estimated 30 million or so people in Europe who suffer from cardiovascular diseases, and to the healthcare systems that care for them.

The programme will integrate healthcare data, activity monitors (wearables), state-of-the-art ‘-omics’ profiles, information about patients’ lifestyles and health and their own reporting of symptoms, to better understand the causes of these conditions and the different subtypes. This information will be used to develop personalized (rather than ‘one size fits all’) treatments.

Professor Folkert Asselbergs, scientific coordinator of BigData@Heart, said: “The IMI funding gives us a unique opportunity to impact clinical care using Big Data approaches. BigData@Heart brings together the strongest research groups in Europe, industry, professional and patient organisations, all working in partnership to improve care for people living with heart disease.”

What is Difficult Dialogues?

By Sujitha Selvarajah, on 7 February 2017

Difficult Dialogues Logo 2017In just three days, the annual Difficult Dialogues forum will kick off. This year’s collaboration between UCL and Difficult Dialogues centres around the pivotal question, ‘Is India’s health a grand challenge?’

Difficult Dialogues is a platform for change.  It is a unique opportunity to bring together a varied range of stakeholders, from experts in academia, public policy, business, international relations and civil society.  These diverse perspectives will undoubtedly fuel important debates about health in India. Our conversations will focus on the four central themes of the summit: Inequality, Gender, Universal Health Care and The Changing Burden of Disease.  Founded by UCL alumna, Surina Narula, Difficult Dialogue’s vision is to build a foundation for these difficult conversations, and translate this dialogue into impact.

The variety comes not only in the panellists and speakers but also the audience.  Rarely will you find such a range of audience members — from government officials and civil society organisations to undergraduates — being engaged in the same discussions.  The forum will take a broader look at health, examining the impact of social, political and economic factors on communities and individual wellbeing.

UCL pioneered investigation into the social determinants of health, with Sir Michael Marmot’s landmark Whitehall Study leading the way in making us rethink the way we tackle health inequalities and universal health care.  Professor Marmot, Ruth Bell and their colleagues at the UCL Institute of Health Equity continue to build this evidence base.   UCL has a strong history in being a leader for change; for example it was the first university in the UK to accept men and women on equal merit. As Dame Nicole Brewer of the Vice-Provost’s office said, “UCL’s strength in forming global partnerships lies in its expertise across a wide range of disciplines.”  Dame Anne Johnson, a UCL speaker at the summit, was the principal investigator in the first ever study that looked at sexual health behaviours, the first of its kind across the world.

Former Director of the UCL Institute of Global Health and current director of Maternal and Child Health at the World Health Organisation, Anthony Costello, did substantial research looking into interventions which reduced maternal mortality rates in rural Indian communities and one of the panel discussions will look at Better Births and choices in Childbirth.  The panel features award-winning independent Indian reporter Sohini Chattopadhay, Bashi Hazard, an Australian lawyer who is Board Director of Human Rights in Childbirth, and will be chaired by UCL’s Dr Aarathi Prasad, who is part of the steering committee for the entire summit.  The panel looking at ensuring equality and opportunity for individuals with disabilities, will be chaired by the UCL Academic lead for Difficult Dialogues, Professor Monica Lakhanpaul.  Professor Lakhanpaul has recently won funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) for a project which looks at optimal infant feeding practises in rural India. The project is one of the first to be funded by GCRF which recognises world-leading research partnerships improving health in low and middle income countries.

At the heart of this bidirectional partnership between Difficult Dialogues and UCL is knowledge exchange and opportunities for collaborations that work towards the overall goal of universal health coverage.

Welcoming the World: celebrating the democratisation of ideas at Jaipur Literature Festival

By Sophie Vinter, on 31 January 2017

UCL undergraduates Shalaka Bapat (first year Anthropology) and Tamiza Tudor (third year French and German) attended the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival thanks to a DSC travel award, supported by the Global Engagement Office. The festival celebrated its tenth anniversary this year.

Words and images: Shalaka Bapat. Originally published here in Savage, UCL’s arts and culture journal.

UCL students Shalaka and Tamiza at Jaipur Literature FestivalThrough the dusty streets of the Pink City emerge ancient palaces and city gates. Next to these stand shops selling mobile phone chargers, cafés blasting Bollywood music and idle Uber drivers awaiting custom. While Jaipur’s architecture is characterised by a mix of Rajasthani and Mughal styles, the city itself is where old meets new. What better place to celebrate ‘ten years of the best writers and thinkers from around the globe’?

I recently attended the tenth Jaipur Literature Festival, where some of the world’s leading artists, scientists and thinkers gather for five days of talks, debates and panels. For those five days, the Hotel Diggi Palace feels like the intellectual heartbeat of the world. The debates are heated, the talks passionate, and you leave a panel feeling that your mind and soul have been nourished with new insights. Many from a certain ‘set’ in India – middle-class, well-educated, international in their outlook yet Indian in their identity – ‘get down to Diggi’ each year. But the audience is not limited to this set because, crucially, JLF is free. This, and the mixture of talks in Hindi and English make events and ideas accessible to many in the region. In a country with huge inequality, this is a powerful statement in favour of opening up intellectual circles.

Indeed, some of India’s most beloved figures attended and gave their talks in Hindi; including Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor, screenwriter Javed Akhtar and the celebrated poet, Gulzar. These were among the most popular talks and drew large contingents from local schools.

With a population of over one billion people, competition in India in every sector and at every level is incredibly high. This puts added pressure on pupils to distinguish themselves academically; many students receive extra tuition and there are few opportunities to learn for the sake of learning. JLF is a space for young people to learn information they will not be tested on, and to hear ideas that do not come from a textbook. The festival also brings international authors to their Indian readers. Writers such as Paul Beatty, winner of the Man Booker Prize, rarely go on book tours in India. Yet as the length of the queues for book signing stood testament, they are hugely popular.

Jaipur Literature FestivalThe interest was reciprocal and international visitors took full advantage of the vast range of Indian speakers in attendance. While the discussions covered many themes there was a prevailing interest in India’s history, its present and its future. ‘Welcoming the world’ was how the festival was kicked off by its directors, and the five days were as much a celebration and examination of India as of literature and culture in general. From a discussion on the Vedas, one of the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, to an illustration of the disparity among Indian states, each talk highlighted the complexities of the subcontinent. This seems incredibly important in an increasingly polarised world. As Adichie said, ‘when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise’.

This applies to both international perceptions of India and Indians’ perceptions of their nation. India is moving further to a right-wing, Hindu nationalist version of itself, and it is important now more than ever to have a space to discuss, share and question. While there has been criticism of the Festival’s sponsorship by Zee, a media company whose news channel has been said to ‘serve as the media bludgeon of the Hindu right’, many of the discussions were in favour of a strong left. A highlight was ‘Why the Future of Free Speech depends on India’; a conversation between Timothy Garton Ash and Salil Tripathi. They spoke about India as a swing state for global free speech, and the importance of cultivating a sense of ‘robust civility’ amongst its population. They also argued for an increased awareness of the diversity of the subcontinent.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2017Historically, the desire to create an Indian monolith has affected literature in astounding ways. Books have been banned, essays removed from reading lists, and authors blackballed. The festival represents a coming together to recognise and celebrate diversity. Author Perumal Murugan, whose book One Part Woman was banned for some time, has spoken at JLF in the past. This year’s festival stayed true to its values of open discussion, debate and knowledge-sharing. Panels such as ‘Being the Other’, discussing being Muslim in a divided India, critically engaged with issues of prejudice, censorship, and its effect on literature. It is essential that JLF continues in this vein in the future, regardless of its sponsor.

India’s diversity makes it a unique location for the sharing of knowledge. With one of the largest youth populations in the world, India will be instrumental in sculpting the global landscape of free speech and access to information in the future. However, these traits have also made the country susceptible to polarisation and extremism. The Jaipur Literature Festival makes a powerful statement in favour of the democratisation of ideas. While incorporating elements from all aspects of culture, literature is promoted as the principle vehicle for ideas sharing. The festival recently created ‘Jaipur Bookmark’, a platform devoted to bringing authors, publishers and translators together. As a practice in empathy reading is becoming increasingly important in India, where growing division has left many citizens vulnerable to alienation. The country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said that ‘the art of a people is a true mirror to their minds’. JLP allows the multifariousness of India’s cultural consciousness to be freely shared and celebrated.

Knowledge exchange at UCL India Voices

By Sujitha Selvarajah, on 27 January 2017

Words and images: Sujitha Selvarajah. Sujitha is a UCL Global Health graduate and final year medical student who will be tweeting and blogging live from the upcoming Difficult Dialogues conference in Goa, of which UCL is Knowledge Partner.

UCL India Voices academic speed dating event, January 2017As part of the UCL Grand Challenge of Cultural Understanding, UCL India Voices hosted the first ever academic speed dating event following January’s South Asia Network Meeting.

With an organisation as large as UCL, with so many departments and different research interests, the potential for collaboration is huge.  It is this potential for collaboration within UCL, particularly on global projects, that underpinned the success of the evening.  It was an ideal platform bringing together people from different backgrounds and disciplines, who share similar interests and objectives.

As Vice-Provost International Dame Nicola Brewer told attendees: “UCL’s strength in forming global partnerships lies in its expertise across a wide range of disciplines.” The evening was a huge success, with many details exchanged and prospective future collaborations being discussed.

Ina Goel, from UCL’s Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies, was an organiser of the event. She said: “Often it becomes hard to break hierarchies in the academic set-up, and an event like ‘speed-dating’ becomes a fun platform not only to have multi-sectoral collaborations but also to get an opportunity to meet people which we might not otherwise get a chance to cross paths with.”

She added that the UCL Grand Challenges programme will soon be inviting applications for two small grants of up to £2,500 each to support innovative cross-disciplinary collaborations between researchers from across the university, to help build impactful partnerships with organisations in India.

Sparking conversation

IMG_0189_editedThe collaborative discussions set the scene for the upcoming Difficult Dialogues conference from 10-12 February, the theme of which asks “Is India’s Health a Grand Challenge?”

The summit is set to take place in Goa and Dr Aarathi Prasad (UCL Office of the Vice-Provost Research) who is on the steering committee, spoke about UCL’s role as Knowledge Partner.

Aarathi emphasised the importance of it not being an academic conference, but instead a forum for discussion and debate about some of the greatest issues and challenges facing universal healthcare in India.

Founded by Surina Narula, a UCL alumni, Difficult Dialogues will engage a range of stakeholders with its primary aim being to bridge the gap between policy makers and NGOs, clinicians and those on the front line.

Having paved the way as a global leader in forming the evidence base for the social determinants of health, UCL experts across different disciplines will be attending the conference and engaging in conversation that aims to spark conversation and impact policy.

Future opportunities

UCL’s South Asia Network is a forum that brings together academics working in the region to explore the current work of UCL as well as opportunities for future engagement.  Whilst there are many focus areas within the regions for UCL collaboration, such as Myanmar and Pakistan, the primary focus of the day’s activities was UCL’s involvement in India.

2017 being the year of the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence and the UK-India Cultural Exchange, also provided the ideal context for this.

UCL's Professor Monica Lakhanpaul, Professor Marie Lall and Dr Priti Parikh present their project at the January 2017 UCL South Asia Network meetingDuring the South Asia Network meeting, Narinder Kapur gave a presentation on the upcoming International Gandhi Conference. As part of the conference,  a new Gandhi scholarship has been set up by UCL, allowing five young people from India to attend the conference in the UK.  The five scholars will be selected after submitting an essay on the relevance of Gandhi in the 21st Century, and their work will be displayed at the event.

Professor Monica Lakhanpaul (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health), Professor Marie Lall (UCL Institute of Education and Pro-Vice-Provost South Asia) and Dr Priti Parikh (UCL Department of Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering), updated the group on the ongoing success of their project A cross disciplinary approach to optimise infant feeding through schools and Anganwadi networks in India. They have secured funding and partnered with a number of Indian NGOs, Save the Children and local community members to develop integrated health, education and environmental interventions.  Professor Lakhanpaul highlighted trust as key to the success of bidirectional exchanges such as this one.

Ask GEO: Ciaran Moynihan, Senior Partnership Manager (North and Latin America)

By Sophie Vinter, on 25 January 2017

Ciaran Moynihan, Senior Partnerships Manager (North and Latin America)Ciaran is GEO’s Senior Partnerships Manager for North and Latin America. Here he shares some key updates and opportunities from both regions with us.

Tell us more about your role in GEO and activity in your regions

I work closely with UCL faculties and departments, as well as other Professional Services, to manage and develop partnerships with institutions in North and Latin America. As you can imagine, UCL has a very wide range of activity in both regions, ranging from research collaborations and student exchanges to dual degrees and beyond. Some interesting partnerships I work on would be the Yale UCL Collaborative; an emerging priority partnership with Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile; and another emerging partnership with the University of Toronto (to name but a few!)

One challenge I face in my role is around capturing the full breadth of activity that UCL colleagues have underway with partners in North and Latin America – I am always interested to hear about links in the regions which I may not be aware of – so please do get in touch to tell me about your research and education links in both regions. There may be ways I can support you in your endeavours!

Map showing a sample of UCL collaborations in North and Latin America, by metropolitan areaWhat are the UCL Research Catalyst Awards?

The UCL Research Catalyst Awards, sponsored by Santander Universities, have successfully run since 2011. The scheme has enabled more than 40 visits to Latin American universities to support development of research collaboration.

The purpose of the awards is to foster research collaboration between UCL and key partner universities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. The awards are available to cover travel, accommodation and subsistence costs associated with focused visits to potential research collaborators, and are aimed at achieving a specific outcome that will support future research collaboration.

We have recently extended the deadline for this year’s applications to Monday 13 February 2017 at 10am. If you’d like to apply, find out more on GEO’s website.

Why do you think UCL’s partnership with Santander Universities is so successful?

UCL began its partnership with Santander Universities in 2007 and was one of the very first UK universities to become a member of the Santander Universities network. The partnership provides UCL students and staff with numerous benefits and opportunities, ranging from study abroad experiences, to research travel grants for staff, to Masters scholarships for incoming students from Latin America.

The partnership with Santander Universities is a strong one for UCL – this year marks the ten-year anniversary of the relationship, which has gone from strength to strength. Not only does Santander Universities provide funding to UCL, but we also work closely with them on support for student entrepreneurship and on helping students to gain internships in small and medium enterprises to enable them to be better prepared for global careers and lives.

UCL will shortly sign a new partnership agreement with Santander Universities, renewing our strong relationship through to 2019, so watch this space for updates on opportunities for staff and students!

What are you working on at the moment?

One of my big areas of focus right now is developing a potentially important partnership with the University of Toronto (U of T). UCL already has strong collaborative links with U of T in a range of areas including child health, education, big data and cancer research, to name a few. We also have a large undergraduate student exchange programme with them. I am currently working with UCL faculties and U of T, under the leadership of the Vice-Provost (International), to explore other areas in which we might collaborate together. Most specifically right now, we are organising a joint workshop on ‘cities’ at UCL, to discuss research collaboration in this area.

U of T is a similar institution to UCL – located in a global city, similarly placed in world league tables, research intensive and with strong educational underpinnings for our students. We are excited at UCL with the opportunity this developing partnership presents, to enable us to work together to deliver excellence in research that will potentially have global impact while also supporting our students as global citizens.

What benefits would joining the North and Latin America networks bring to UCL academics?

Both networks essentially act as ‘communities of interest’ for UCL academics working on topics related to the region, with partners in the region or from the region. We hold termly meetings to bring academics together to hear about institutional initiatives in these regions, while also providing a forum for academics to network with each other and discuss their work regarding partners from North and Latin America.

We also utilise the networks to share regular region-specific funding opportunities that may be of interest to academics, and we are planning to run some academic led events over the coming months. In fact, it would be wonderful to hear from UCL academics on themes, topics etc. for possible events which colleagues would like to see run via the networks!

Contact Ciaran on:

+44 (0)20 3108 7777 / internal 57777

€15m EU grant awarded to innovative UCL health partnership in Portugal

By Sophie Vinter, on 24 January 2017

UCL Professor Jonathan Knowles with vice rectors and mayors from Portuguese regionsAn interdisciplinary UCL collaboration has secured a €15m EU Horizon 2020 Teaming grant to set up a new centre in regenerative and precision medicine based at the University of Minho (UoM) in Portugal.

The team, led by Professor Jonathan Knowles (Professor of Biomaterials Science, UCL Eastman Dental Institute) secured just over €5m of the award for UCL to develop its work with UoM and other Portuguese partners.

Through training, development and research, the seven-year-long Discoveries Centre project being led by UoM’s Professor Rui L. Reis could bring further investment from the Portuguese central government and regional authorities totalling €100m.

Innovative treatments

Regenerative and precision medicines are emerging medical research fields that aim to provide innovative treatments for diseases affecting millions of people worldwide, from musculoskeletal and neurodegenerative disorders to heart disease.

Working with Professor Knowles on the project are Dr Ivan Wall (Department of Biochemical Engineering), Professor Giampietro Schiavo (Institute of Neurology), Professor Andreas Schätzlein (School of Pharmacy), Professor Vivek Mudera (Division of Surgery), Dr Richard Day (Division of Medicine), Professor Tim McHugh (Division of Infection and Immunity), Dr Jane Kinghorn (Translational Research Office) and Oli Pinch from Innovation and Enterprise.

Activities involved in the partnership include stem cell therapies, bioreactor technology and developing materials to regenerate tissues.

Strength in innovation

Playing a central role, UCL’s strength in innovation and enterprise will complement the University of Minho’s work as one of the leading European institutes in laboratory based regenerative medicine. The Universities of Porto, Aveiro, Lisbon and Nova Lisbon are also involved. The team will help move the research out to clinical use, treating patients in need.

Professor Knowles said: “This collaboration will help address the needs of the ageing population and create therapies that are cost effective. Regenerative medicine is very interdisciplinary – you need to understand the tissues, cellular processing and in vivo models – it requires a lot of expertise.

“For example, to use stem cells you need to think about scaling up and producing enough cells in the right form and in clinically relevant numbers.

“There is a lot of great work going on at UCL in the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. The opportunity that UCL has is to build on this centre to establish a much stronger structure across the university.”

Teaming is key part of the EU’s effort to unlock Europe’s potential in research and innovation. Only ten grants were approved by the European Commission, from around 170 applications.

The project will begin on 1 April 2017.


UCL Research Catalyst Awards: tackling rare diseases in Brazil

By Chris E C Cook, on 23 January 2017

28 February 2017 is the tenth international Rare Disease Day, focusing on the theme of research. We take a look at how the UCL Research Catalyst Awards have enabled an international collaboration tackling rare diseases to go from strength to strength.

In 2014 UCL Professor Jim Owen (Emeritus Professor of Molecular Medicine) and Professor David Abraham (Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology) travelled to Brazil thanks to a £5,000 Santander Universities-funded Research Catalyst Award.

Their visit identified research on rare disease (RD) as a significant area that could be jointly developed between UCL and institutions in north-east Brazil – a centre of global rare disease.

The partnerships formed went on to help with students and post-doctoral researchers coming to UCL via Brazil’s Science without Borders (SwB) mobility programme.

International Symposium on Rare Diseases 2016Collaboration on rare disease

Professor Owen said the area of RD was identified due to two compelling reasons: (i) that it is now Brazilian National Policy to introduce early and accurate diagnosis of RD plus treatments for affected individuals into the public health system; and (ii) that genetic clusters of RD are concentrated in north-east Brazil due to centuries of colonisation and crossbreeding between natives, Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch) and African slaves.

Building on links with Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE), this joint goal progressed further with Brazilian researchers from LIKA [the leading biomedical centre in north-east Brazil situated on the UFPE campus] visiting UCL Departments and the UCL Institute of Child Health (ICH) in September 2014. In turn, this led to a highly successful Rare Diseases symposium (RDis-2015) the following April attended by seven UCL researchers, including three from ICH.

The Zika virus outbreak slowed progress in 2016, but a second symposium ran in March 2016 with the clear aim of sustaining emerging partnerships between UK-Brazil laboratories and developing new ones. UCL links with five universities (UFPE, Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco,  Universidade Federal do Ceará, Universidade de Fortaleza and Universidade Federal da Bahia) in north-east Brazil are now in place, with a vision for UFPE and associated Recife Hospitals to form a Reference Centre for RD in line with recent National and Interfarma recommendations. At the same time the partnership will seek to widen this consortium to encompass Brazil’s leading universities.

Rare diseases debate held at the Legislative Assembly of Pernambuco StateProf Owen highlighted a further strong positive note as the involvement of GlaxoSmithKline at the 2016 symposium – it is hoped this tentative partnership will be developed in the months ahead, along with involvement of further pharmaceutical companies.

These research links are now beginning to show tangible evidence of success, through publications (a 2015 PLoS One article, two submitted and others in preparation) and also through grant funding (with UCL researchers included grants of £185,000 and £144,000 to UFC and UFPE, respectively), while UFPE was named on a £20,000 grant awarded to Drug Discovery, UCL School of Pharmacy.

Links help foster mobility

Thanks to links fostered by the original visit and subsequent collaborations, a number of Brazilian students and post-doctoral researchers have come to UCL via SwB.

Dr Ayrles Brandão da Silva (a post-doc SwB fellow from Fortaleza) spent a year in UCL’s Institute for Liver and Digestive Health working with Dr Raj Mookerjee, while Isabella Cantanhede (a UFPE medical student and undergraduate SwB fellow) undertook a five-month research project in UCL’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences with Dr Jan-Willem Taanmen. While in the UK they had the opportunity to meet Professor Sir John Gurdon when he gave the UCL Clinical Science Prize lecture.

Brazilian students met Professor Sir John Gurdon when he gave the UCL Clinical Science Prize lectureSandwich PhD student Felipe Domingos de Sousa investigated the therapeutic potential of plant lectins in healing processes and other related skin diseases under the supervision of Professor David Abraham (UCL Centre for Rheumatology and Connective Tissue Diseases). In Brazil, Felipe has dual positions in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Universidade Federal do Ceará and in the Centre of Experimental Biology (Nubex), Universidade de Fortaleza. Before leaving UFC, he successfully cloned and expressed Frutapin, a lectin from Artocarpus incisa seeds, in milligram amounts from E coli cultures.

Two further SwB sponsored students from north-east Brazil have also spent periods at UCL: Victor Passos (UFPE) who worked with Professor Steve Hart at ICH and Kildere Marques-Canuto, who received training in the Division of Medicine, RFC.  Though the SwB programme is currently suspended, three other UFPE researchers are currently seeking fellowships to come to UCL: Dr Luiz Alberto Mattos to spend a year at UCL Department of Clinical Trials, Dr Carolina Córdula for a proteomics study at ICH (Dr Kevin Mills) and a PhD student, Andriu Catena who will extend Dr Ayrles Brandão da Silva’s project.

UCL South Asian collaborations win funding to help developing countries cope with environmental hazards

By Sophie Vinter, on 13 January 2017

Bak Bay Slum Beach, Mumbai. Copyright Flickr/Adam CohnThree interdisciplinary UCL collaborations have secured Research Councils funding to help communities in developing countries better manage their response to environmental disasters.

Projects led by UCL’s Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction and Department of Statistical Science are among 29 that have been backed by the Building Resilience research programme to tackle a range of life-threatening hazards, from droughts and land degradation to volcanoes, earthquakes and flooding.

The programme, run by the NERC, ESRC and AHRC, forms part of the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), a £1·5bn UK government fund to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries.

  • Professor Serge Guillas (UCL Department of Statistical Science) will lead a team collaborating with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) investigating tsunami risk to coastal India, in order to increase community resilience through planning and policy changes.
  • Professor Peter Sammonds (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction) will work with the University of Jammu on a project examining environmental hazards in a frontier conflict zone. His team will focus on Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, which experiences frequent major floods and landslides.
  • Professor Maureen Fordham (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction) will lead a team exploring use of mobile technology in mountainous rural Nepal – blighted by frequent earthquakes and landslides – to improve access to information and communications to support the health of pregnant or newly delivered women and their children before, during and after an environmental disaster. She will collaborate with Nepal-based HERD International and UK think-tank ODI.

Preventing loss of lives and livelihood

Building on an existing three-year collaboration with IISc in developing statistical and mathematical approaches to better quantify tsunami hazards, Professor Guillas will work with Dr Cassidy Johnson (UCL Development Planning Unit) and Dr Simon Day (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction) to explore how urbanisation contributes to the impact of coastal inundation on Indian communities, using planning to prevent severe losses in lives and livelihoods alike.

He said: “In 2004, the lack of awareness and preparedness to a possible tsunami arising from the Sumatra-Andaman fault unfortunately contributed to the death of around 15,000 people on the Eastern coast of India, with a catastrophic effect on poor and fragile local communities. The prospect of similar losses in a future event on the Western coast, including cities such as Mumbai, compels us to jointly investigate this risk.

“The Mumbai metropolitan region has grown from around 5 million to 25 million people since 1945 – the date of the last tsunami hitting the region – with a large concentration of poor population on the coast and living on low-lying reclaimed land. Such density poses massive evacuation issues due to the lack of infrastructure and preparedness. Only wise planning can reduce exposure, as early warning systems only mitigate the tsunami consequences.”

Knowledge Africa 2017 – Africa Unheard

By Sophie Vinter, on 13 January 2017

This year’s Knowledge Africa Day will showcase UCL research that is informed by Africa, representing a cognisant shift in position from sharing knowledge about the continent.

The half-day Africa Unheard event on Wednesday 15 February is the second of its kind, open to staff and students from across UCL including members of the Africa & Middle East Network.

Diverse speakers will explore the ideas of African thinkers, research and research methodologies informed by African perspectives and context, and research that engages with Africa and Africans (including African Diaspora) to create knowledge about places outside of Africa and about non-Africans.

Keynote speaker will be Professor Graham Harrison, Director of Postgraduate Research, Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, who will explore the variegated ways in which discourses and imagery of Africa are transposed through acts of mediation into the milieux of British national identity.

Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, Pro-Vice-Provost (Africa & Middle East) said: “Africa Unheard will explore the idea that ‘Africa’ or ‘Africans’ are often framed as the subject of research and the point of enquiry, potentially silencing the multiple ways in which Africa informs research. It will help to build a platform for staff and students to listen, learn and engage with other ways of knowing Africa.”