UofG researchers lend support to UK networks to transform older age health

Researchers from the University of Glasgow are playing central roles in four new national research networks focused on transforming the wellbeing of older people and boosting the economy. 
 
The projects – called BLAST, ECMage, MyAge and ATTAIN – are among 11 new networks involving 28 UK universities. Together, they aim to transform ageing research in the UK, funded with £2 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).
 
Previous reviews of how to boost ageing research in the UK have found research efforts to be fragmented, focusing on single aspects of ageing. Now these networks aim to provide researchers with strong interdisciplinary platforms to integrate expertise and knowledge across disciplines to deliver a better understanding of the biological mechanisms of ageing and how to increase healthy lifespan and quality of life in old age.
 
The networks also aim to increase collaboration with stakeholders – including working with the public, industry, charities, policymakers and health practitioners – to translate findings into policy, public health and new therapies.
 
The BLAST Network: Building links in ageing science and translation is led by Professor Richard Faragher, University of Brighton and Professor Lynne Cox, University of Oxford, with collaborators at Queen's University of Belfast and 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 and increase dissemination of ageing research findings. The network will partner with academics across multiple disciplines including biologists, engineers, chemists, social scientists and economists, as well as with biotech, pharma, business, healthcare professionals and policymakers to identify effective interventions in ageing processes and promote the implementation of findings through translation into policy and practice.
 
Professor Richard Hartley, of the School of Chemistry, is one of the collaborators in BLAST. He said: “At the moment we treat cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and neurodegeneration as separate diseases.  But all correlate with the process of ageing.  Imagine if we had a single intervention that held them all at bay.  That is the beauty of geroscience."
 
The Extracellular Matrix Ageing Network (ECMage) is led by Dr Elizabeth Laird at the University of Liverpool, with collaborators at University of Glasgow, University of Liverpool, University of Nottingham, The University of Manchester and Newcastle University.
 
ECMage focusses on the role of the cellular environment, the extracellular matrix on ageing and its role in regeneration. As we get older, the environment that cells live in deteriorates and changes in terms of composition, stiffness and degradation. These alterations reduce tissue resilience can make it challenging for cells to be able to respond to the need for regeneration or for cell therapies to engraft and have effect. By understanding these age-related changes and how to reverse them using synthetic materials, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine approaches, we can help cells to repair and regenerate aged tissues.
 
Professor Matthew Dalby of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology, is a collaborator on the ECMage network. Professor Dalby said: “The extracellular matrix is central to almost all cell functions and provides essential structural support to tissue and organs. The matrix environment tells cells how to grow, how to produce new matrix and how to communicate with each other - all these responses are fundamental to the production of new tissues. Understanding changes in extracellular matrix and then learning how to mimic the matrix using synthetic materials containing cells or by ‘negotiating’ with the cells to produce new, younger matrix can help us counter the lowered regenerative capacity of the ageing population. This will help support a better quality of life along with increased life-span.”
 
The Muscle resilience across the life course: from cells to society (MyAge) network is led by Professor Peter JS Smith of the University of Southampton, with collaborators at University of Birmingham, Imperial College London and 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 bring together researchers in metabolism, regenerative medicine, genome science, epigenetics, mathematics, social science, health inequity, biotech, and pharma, taking a reverse engineering approach to understand the mechanistic pathways of muscle development, differentiation, and decline. They aim to develop a roadmap to interventions that can achieve five more years of independent living.
 
Professor Nikolaj Gadegaard, of the James Watt School of Engineering, is part of the MyAge network. He said: “With age, our muscles gradually reduce in mass together with their strength. This leads to complications later in life where the decay of our skeletal muscles result in reduced mobility and can impact rehabilitation after injuries or fracture. Other muscles that are impacted are for example the heart and bladder. These accumulated changes of the muscles lead to socioeconomic challenges for the society but importantly also impact on the wellbeing and quality of life for the aging population. This network aims to address these challenges from a muscle perspective and through collaboration with other networks.”
 
Lifelong physical activity targeting inequalities (ATTAIN) is led by Dr Leigh Breen at the University of Birmingham, with collaborators at University of Glasgow, Sheffield Hallam University and 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, 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.
 
Dr Victoria Palmer, of the MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit, said: “‘Physical activity can help support people to live longer and healthier lives. However, less than half of older adults over 65 in the UK meet the current recommended levels of physical activity. Older adults from socially deprived or ethnic minority backgrounds have particularly low levels of physical activity and are often underrepresented in research, as a result, we have a limited understanding of the health benefits of physical activity and barriers to taking part in physical activity in these communities.

Professor Sharon Simpson, also of the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, added: “We are really excited to be part of the ATTAIN network which takes a novel transdisciplinary approach to tackle health inequalities in healthy ageing. Working in tandem with communities, policy makers and practitioners, we seek to better understand the health benefits of physical activity in socially deprived and minority ethnic communities and overcome the challenges they face and improve their access to physically active living, so that they are able to spend more years in good health.”


 
“The ATTAIN network seeks to address this by forging new interdisciplinary research collaborations to understand the health benefits of physical activity in socially deprived and minority ethnic communities and develop solutions to overcome the challenges of accessing physical activity in these communities.”
 
Professor Richard Faragher, Ageing Networks Macro Coordinator, said: “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.”
 
Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, 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."
 
Professor John Iredale, interim Executive Chair of Medical Research Council, 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.”


First published: 8 March 2022