The Andrew Wiles Building, modern and sleek in its design, was the perfect setting to look back over the course of the last five decades. The event took our guests on a journey, from the pioneering scientific contributions which have helped shape the way diseases in childhood and adolescence are understood, diagnosed, treated and prevented to our exciting new plans for the future of Childhood Care research.
As the guests gathered in the foyer, they were greeted by a visual timeline of the history of Paediatrics in Oxford. The exhibition, created by artist Martin O’Neill, used bold colours, photography, paint and silksreen to tell an exciting story of the years leading up to today. With many commenting that it was a very creative and imaginate way of putting into context the journey of the Department.
Head of the Department of Paediatrics, Professor Georg Holländer commenced proceedings with a warm welcome to the symposium before introducing Professor Dame Louise Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, who congratulated the Department on its success and remarkable achievements.
Next, Professor Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine, took to the stage remarking on the extraordinary research milestones and contextualising the positive impact the Department has had on shaping the child health research landscape across the globe. He reflected on his own personal journey in overcoming medicine, life sciences and health research challenges.
Dr Samantha Vanderslott then presented her findings on the Department’s history, dating back to the opening of the first children’s ward at the Radcliffe Infirmary in 1867. She highlighted early pioneer paediatricians: Dr Cicely Delphine Williams, one of the first female medical students to graduate from Oxford University who identified the protein deficiency disease kwashiorkor in 1929 and Dr Victoria Smallpeice, the first full-time paediatrician at the Churchill Hospital children’s ward in 1947, who with Dr Pamela Davies introduced very early enteral feeding with human milk for preterm babies in 1964. Next, the 1960s and 70s marked many scientific developments in paediatrics. These included the discovery of ‘brown fat’, vital for retaining warmth in newborns (1963, Prof. Sir David Hull and Dr Michael Dawkins), the invention of the ‘Silver Swaddler’ to protect premature babies from heat loss (1968, Prof. David Baum), and the confirmation of human foetus sleep cycles (1972 Prof. Geoffrey Dawes).
The opening of the Department of Paediatrics in 1972 was marked by Prof. Sir Peter Tizard becoming the first Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Oxford. Prof. David Baum was also recruited as a lecturer in the new Department and would go on to found Britain’s first children’s hospice ‘Helen House’ with nun Sister Frances in 1982. In 2007, the new West Wing and Children’s Hospital opened at the JR Hospital, with an official opening ceremony by Queen the following year.
Continuing the historical theme, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, Professor of Infection & Immunity brought to life the fascinating journey of vaccinology. His talk ‘Child Health through 226 Years of Vaccination’ uncovered the development of various types of vaccines that have made a direct impact on children’s health globally.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard went on to highlight the establishment of the Oxford Vaccine group in 1994 by Emeritus Professor Richard Moxon to 2022. He explained that currently the OVG network spans the globe, with collaborators beyond Europe to include countries such as: Nepal, Bangladesh, Uganda, Brazil, Malawi, and South Africa. Andy pointed out that without the team in place to drive global clinical trials, it would not have been possible to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in such a streamlined and efficient way.
The first half of the symposium was rounded off by Professor Rebeccah Slater, who shared her insight as a Paediatric Neuroscientist. Her talk, titled ‘Painful Beginnings’ was a reflection on the transformation of how scientists over the past 50 years have conceptualised pain and contrastingly, how current research has proven that neonatal infants experience pain through MRI, EEG and analytical approaches.
After a brief interval, involving canapés and other refreshments, the guests returned to the auditorium for the second half of the Symposium.
The next talk was delivered by Professor Matthew Wood, a renowned Neuroscientist who explained how his research team are committed to ‘Curing Paediatrics Rare Diseases’. With over 7,000 known rare diseases – “it is through the development of understanding genetics over the past 50 years which makes it now possible to determine these rare conditions”.
Matthew walked through the development of clinical studies from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy to Spinal Muscular Atrophy, through the support and work from Professor Laurent Servais. The excitement didn’t stop there, as Matthew enthusiastically shared insights into Laurent’s pioneering newborn screening programmes in Europe and the UK. He explained how they use genomes to diagnose pre-symptomatic patients, shaping new novel therapies.
This segued into an introduction of the Oxford-Harington Rare Disease Centre. Matthew explained that the vision of this new flagship institute is to combine both research excellence and drug discovery to cure rare diseases world-wide with a goal of delivering 20 drugs in the next 10 years to 350 million people suffering from rare diseases.
The penultimate talk was delivered by Dr Dora Markati, DPhil Student in Professor Laurent Servais STRONG group. Her presentation, titled: ‘A New Era of Drug Development for Neurogenetic Conditions’ brought to light the impact of genetic conditions on Paediatrics and Paediatrics Neurology. She explained the many challenges surrounding rare diseases and the recent biostudies involved that have helped yield more detailed diagnosis. This has allowed breakthroughs in RNA/DNA level therapies over the last two decades. This work is continued in today’s preclinical and clinical development, capturing 15 therapeutic approaches within these trials aiming to tackle rare diseases such as Angelman Syndrome.
Dora concluded her talk by confirming that drug developments are a complicated processes because of the rarity of the disease and the variability of diseases between people with different genetic backgrounds. However, upon reflection, as a Department we have shown that through collaboration with industry, communities, and researchers it is possible to link up almost all of the stages required in order to bring about successful drug development but that the challenge was to significantly scale up these activities to drive further improvement to child health.
To finish off the symposium, Associate Professor (Andi) Anindita Roy in Paediatric Haematology delivered her presentation on ‘Childhood Leukaemia Research & Treatment: A Remarkable Success Story – but are we done?’. Andi dove straight into the history of childhood leukaemia treatment in the UK. Starting with treatments available in 1948 all the way through to the modern-day. With survival rates of the disease now almost tripled (30% - 90%). She highlighted that there is still work to be done with regards to: ensuring continued treatment reduction, personalised treatments, non-chemotherapy treatments, targeted therapy and international collaboration.
Andi concluded her talk by thanking her team and various collaborators whilst stating her hope that the next 50 years would allow us to achieve a 100% survival rate in childhood leukaemia.
It was then time to venture out of the Mathematical Institute to the quiet surrounds of an Oxford College. After a short walk over to Baliol, the guests congregated in The Old Common Room & Fellows Garden for a Champagne reception followed by dinner in The Dining Hall. The Chancellor of the University of Oxford, The Rt Hon the Lord Pattern of Barnes CH welcomed the group with an uplifting speech before toasting and commemorating the Department of Paediatrics 50-year anniversary.
To finish off the celebrations, a surprise recital was performed on a Steinway piano, by Martin James Bartlett. Not only a prodigy of the piano but an award winning, exclusive Warner Classics artist and BBC Young Musician of the year. The piece he played, titled: ‘Scenes from Childhood’ by Kinderszenen was the perfect grand finale of the anniversary, beautifully capturing the journey from little steps to giant leaps.