Researchers at 28 UK universities team up to tackle healthy ageing

Grandparent and grand child hands together.

Researchers will collaborate to create 11 new networks aimed at transforming UK ageing research.

Previous reviews of how to boost ageing research in the UK have found research efforts to be fragmented; focusing on single aspects of ageing.

It is recognised that there is a need to improve research in this vital area. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC) have therefore combined their investment power to the tune of £2 million to create the UK Ageing Networks.

Making connections

The 11 new networks aim to provide researchers with strong interdisciplinary platforms to integrate expertise and knowledge across disciplines.

This is to deliver a better understanding of the biological mechanisms of ageing and how to increase healthy lifespan and quality of life in old age.

Coordinated at a macro-level by Professors Lynne Cox and Richard Faragher, the networks will significantly increase collaboration with key stakeholders. They aim to translate findings into future policy, public health and new therapies by working alongside:

  • the public
  • industry partners
  • charities
  • policymakers
  • healthcare practitioners.

Putting research findings into practice

Professor Cox said:

Major scientific advances over the past decade have shown that different age-related diseases stem from core biological processes that can be modified to improve health in later life.

This is an incredibly exciting time to be working in ageing science, particularly as it may be possible not only to treat age-related diseases at cause, but also to take a preventative approach.

The interdisciplinary nature of the new ageing networks allows us to draw in expertise from across all academic disciplines and work with clinicians, biotech, industry and policy makers to put research findings into practice.

Transforming health in later years

Professor Faragher added:

We are at the cusp of scientific developments that will transform health in later years. By being able to keep millions of older people healthy and out of hospital, we can hugely reduce costs and pressures on the NHS and GPs.

Be in no doubt. A race is now on, and the countries and companies that can capitalise on the biology of ageing will dominate 21st century healthcare.

Addressing a major societal challenge

Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of BBSRC, said:

At the heart of improved health and wellbeing is a deep, integrated understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that contribute to maintaining health across the full life course. An understanding that is underpinned by collaboration, partnerships and shared knowledge.

By funding the Ageing Networks, we’re not only addressing a major societal challenge, we’re also stimulating multidisciplinary research and innovation, with the potential for some really exciting breakthroughs.

Building UK-wide collaborations

Professor John Iredale, interim Executive Chair of MRC, said:

How to keep people healthier as they live longer is one of the biggest challenges facing 21st century medicine and our society.

To make greater progress we need to transform how we conduct ageing research, both by bringing together scientists from many disciplines with the public, clinicians, policymakers and industry.

The new networks we’re funding will build UK-wide collaborations to better understand the fundamentals of ageing, paving the way towards the development of novel interventions to prevent, halt or reverse aberrant ageing.

Further information

The UK Ageing Network

Establishing a network to catalyse collaboration for reducing immune ageing: catalyst reducing immune ageing (CARINA)

Led by Professor Arne Akbar, University College London, with collaborators at:

  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Surrey
  • Imperial College London.

The immune system is critical for eliminating infectious diseases and cancers from the body and for wound healing, but its function declines in older people.

This network aims to bring together immunologists with non-immunologists who study areas relevant to understanding immune ageing, to identify new strategies to understand and overcome the challenges of the ageing immune system.

They hope this could identify targets for interventions to enhance immunity in new areas, such as:

  • exercise physiology
  • circadian rhythms
  • inflammation
  • metabolic interventions
  • microbiota transplantation.

Muscle resilience across the life course: from cells to society (MyAge)

Led by Professor Peter JS Smith, University of Southampton, with collaborators at:

  • University of Birmingham
  • Imperial College London
  • University of Nottingham.

One of the most prominent changes associated with ageing is the loss of muscle mass and function, with up to half of muscle mass being lost by the eighth decade of life. It leads to impaired mobility, falls, fractures, physical disability, and serious socioeconomic consequences.

Muscle ageing is affected not just by intrinsic genetic factors, but also by an individual’s physical and social environment.

This network will take a reverse engineering approach to understand the mechanistic pathways of muscle development, differentiation, and decline. It will bring together researchers in:

  • metabolism
  • regenerative medicine
  • genome science
  • epigenetics
  • mathematics
  • social science
  • health inequity
  • biotech
  • pharma.

They aim to develop a roadmap to interventions that can achieve five more years of independent living.

Lifelong physical activity targeting inequalities (ATTAIN)

Led by Dr Leigh Breen, University of Birmingham, with collaborators at:

  • University of Glasgow
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • Cardiff Metropolitan University.

The number of years of older age lived in good health is lower in socially disadvantaged or minority ethnic communities. Physical activity helps to improve physical and mental functions and can reverse some chronic disease effects to keep older people mobile and independent.

However, people from socially disadvantaged or ethnic minority groups have lower physical activity on average and are underrepresented in research.

This network aims to bring together molecular, cellular and population-level research approaches to identify and address the physical, environmental and psychosocial barriers to physically active living.

It will work with key stakeholders, policymakers and industry partners, as well as socially deprived and minority ethnic communities in the UK.

This is to develop effective and accessible physical activity practices and support the next generation of researchers in this field, with the aim of extending healthy life expectancy in these underrepresented populations.

Harnessing knowledge of lifespan biological, health, environmental and psychosocial mechanisms of cognitive frailty for integrated interventions (CFIN)

Led by Professor Carol Holland, Lancaster University, with collaborators at:

  • Newcastle University
  • Aston University
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • Heriot-Watt University.

Cognitive frailty is when individuals are both physically frail and have a cognitive impairment, compared with typical individuals of the same age, but without dementia.

We do not yet fully understand the biological mechanisms causing cognitive frailty, or how these relate to lifestyle factors that correlate with cognitive frailty later in life, such as educational attainment and environmental inequalities.

The network will aim to understand mechanisms of cognitive frailty and identify pathways for targeted interventions across the lifespan. It will bring together:

  • biogerontologists
  • neuroscientists
  • psychologists
  • social scientists
  • the voice of the older person.

Food for added life years: putting research into action (Food4Years)

Led by Dr Miriam Clegg, University of Reading, with collaborators at:

  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Reading
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Surrey.

There are many barriers for older people to consume a nutrient dense diet, with one in ten people over the age of 65 malnourished or at risk of malnutrition in the UK.

Research is needed to explore how to build consumer awareness about the importance of eating for healthy ageing and to co-create diets and foods that meet the ageing population’s needs.

This project aims to develop and deliver changes that promote healthy, affordable foods and diets for older adults. It aims to build networks of:

  • consumers
  • businesses
  • charities
  • clinicians
  • public health
  • academic researchers.

Ageing and nutrition sensing (AGENT)

Led by Professor Gary Frost, Imperial College London, with collaborators at:

  • The University of Manchester
  • Newcastle University
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Bristol.

Studies have shown that nutrition and the systems the body uses to sense the nutritional environment have an effect on metabolism and ageing. But in humans it is not yet fully understood why some people metabolically age at a faster rate than others.

The network will bring together researchers in areas ranging from nutrition to cellular biology and human physiology to population health.

It aims to address all aspects on the pathway from fundamental research to how this new knowledge will apply to policy making to improve healthy lifespan and quality of life in old age.

An interdisciplinary ageing alliance: cellular metabolism over a life-course in socioeconomic disadvantaged populations (CELLO)

Led by Dr Sian Henson, Queen Mary University of London, with collaborators at:

  • University of Liverpool
  • London School of Tropical Medicine
  • University of Birmingham
  • Newcastle University.

A key biological factor underpinning the inequality in healthy ageing seen in socioeconomically disadvantaged populations are changes in cellular metabolism.

For example, many chronic age-related conditions are associated with metabolic dysregulation. Therefore, understanding changes in cellular metabolism throughout the life course is essential to identify ways of addressing this inequality.

This network aims to bring an interdisciplinary team together. The team will investigate how metabolic dysfunction of ageing cells is dictated by both intrinsic (for example, genetic) and extrinsic (for example, environmental) mechanisms from an early age.

Skin microbiome in healthy ageing (SMiHA)

Led by Professor M Julie Thornton, University of Bradford, with collaborators at:

  • University of East Anglia
  • Queen Mary University of London
  • The University of Manchester
  • University of Liverpool.

Skin is home to many microbes, which are usually ‘friendly’, providing protection from infection by forming a shield against the invasion of disease-causing microbes into the body.

The composition of the microbes alters with age, alongside changes to the skin such as thinning and dryness. The very elderly can suffer from chronically infected wounds which are resistant to treatment. The hormonal changes of menopause cause alterations in the skin and its microbiome.

This network aims to bring together skin scientists and microbiologists, clinicians and industry to better understand and target changes in the skin microbiome with ageing.

Extracellular matrix ageing across the life course interdisciplinary research network (ECMage)

Led by Dr Elizabeth Laird, University of Liverpool, with collaborators at:

  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Nottingham
  • The University of Manchester
  • Newcastle University.

Extracellular matrix (ECM) is the main structural component of tissues and organs and is made of a three-dimensional network of molecules.

It can be structural (for example in the bone it is mineralised, or in the lung it provides elasticity) but is also dynamic, controlling key cellular signals and responding to external factors such as light-dark cycles.

ECM deterioration leads to abnormal communication between cells and loss of vital functions, which contributes to many age-related diseases.

The network will aim to develop models to study ECM ageing. It will bring together:

  • biologists
  • chemists
  • geneticists
  • ageing scientists
  • engineers
  • mathematicians
  • clinicians
  • health and social scientists.

The BLAST Network: building links in ageing science and translation

Led by Professor Richard Faragher, University of Brighton and Professor Lynne Cox, University of Oxford, with collaborators at:

  • Queen’s University of Belfast
  • University of Glasgow.

The network will focus on identifying biomarkers of age-related poor health and understanding the mechanistic drivers of biological ageing that diminish healthy lifespan.

It will host workshops and summer schools to:

  • investigate important biomedical questions in ageing
  • support new research through pump-priming
  • develop training resources for healthcare practitioners
  • increase dissemination of ageing research findings.

The network will aim to identify effective interventions in ageing processes and promote the implementation of findings through translation into policy and practice. It will partner with academics across multiple disciplines including:

  • biologists
  • engineers
  • chemists
  • social scientists
  • economists.

It will also partner with:

  • biotech
  • pharma
  • business
  • healthcare professionals
  • policymakers.

The ageing research translation (ART) of healthy ageing network

Led by Professor Miles Witham, Newcastle University, with collaborators at:

  • Liverpool John Moores University
  • Manchester Metropolitan University.

Major advances are being made in the biology and epidemiology of ageing, but these advances are not always being translated from the laboratory to the clinic.

The ART of Healthy Ageing network aims to bring complementary expertise to build the necessary capacity, knowledge and resources for effective translation of advances in ageing biology and epidemiology into interventions for human testing. It will bring together people from different disciplines, including:

  • the biology of ageing
  • epidemiology
  • physiology
  • geriatric medicine
  • clinical trials
  • data science.

The network will engage with a broad range of stakeholders including the public, charities, policymakers and industry.

Find out more about the UK Ageing Network.

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