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Unique transatlantic research partnership aims at longer healthier lives

Visit National Institute on Aging

26 November 2009

Research efforts to help the world’s ageing population live longer healthier lives have been given a major boost with the announcement of six new transatlantic research projects aiming to understanding the biology of the ageing process.

In the first agreement of its kind, the US funding agency for ageing research, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the UK’s funding body for bioscience research, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) are jointly funding £4M of projects. Each project includes leading researchers from universities from both the UK and US.

The transatlantic research teams will study the biology that drives how our bodies change with age. Their aim is to generate knowledge about the biology behind ageing that will ultimately contribute to a better quality of life and health for the growing older population.

Amongst the challenges that the projects will investigate are: why an older person’s immune systems doesn’t always work as well as a younger person’s; what genetic and molecular effects in the body that determine age span; and how environmental factors impact on the genetics of ageing.

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said: “We are seeing increased life expectancy in the developed world and a growing older population as a consequence. Living a long life is one thing, but living a healthy, active and enjoyable life into old age is quite another.

“To appreciate what older people need in order to remain healthy and active we must understand as much as we can about what is going on in an ageing body. With this knowledge, our clinical colleagues can develop healthcare and disease prevention strategies that will see older people on both sides of the Atlantic, and beyond, living fulfilled and happy lives. By working together, BBSRC and NIA have been able to capitalise on the world class research in both countries and leverage the funding available to our scientists.”

NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. said: “We are excited to expand our scientific pursuits through this unique opportunity to work with our colleagues overseas. Research aimed at better understanding the nature of aging should help us find ways to extend the healthy, active years of life.” As part of the National Institutes of Health, NIA leads the United States Federal effort in supporting and conducting research on aging and the medical, social, and behavioural issues of older people.

By combining researchers from the UK and US the projects bring together the best science from both sides of the Atlantic and capitalise on the different skill sets and assets each country has. The University of Glasgow and Brown University will work together to test a new biological theory of ageing; University College London and the University of Arizona will collaborate to study the decline in immunity of the skin of older people; the University of Edinburgh and the University of Georgia will examine the effects of fluctuating hormone levels on older people’s immune systems; King’s College London and the Georgia Institute of Technology will ask how environmental factors can impact the level of activity of certain genes involved in ageing; Bangor University and the University of Texas Health Science Centre, San Antonio are looking to the world’s longest-lived animal, the ocean quahog, to ask what factors affect longevity and how can they lead to such a wide variation in lifespan; and Imperial College London and the University of Washington are focussing in on a molecular system in cells that is involved in healthy ageing. [Further details of the projects can be found in the Notes to Editors section]

Professor Kell continued: “We are really delighted to see these valuable international collaborations arise out of the joint sponsorship programme we set up with NIA. Science has become a truly global effort these days, and we are very happy to support researchers who are coming together to maximise effort and take full advantage of each other’s strengths.”


Notes to editors

This initiative is the first time a UK research council has partnered the US National Institute of Health in a single peer review process. The projects were assessed using the NIH peer review system and BBSRC supported NIH to put together a mixed US-UK panel to carry out the peer review on behalf of both funders.


The Wnt-chromatin axis in ageing
Professor Peter Adams, University of Glasgow
Professor John Sedivy, Brown University

This project will test a new biological theory of ageing. It is well known that the tissues in our bodies decline in quality and function as we get older, however the molecular basis of ageing is still relatively poorly understood. The new theory will combine three ideas: i) there is a finite number of times a cell can divide in its lifetime, therefore limiting the ability of our tissues to regenerate over time and after wear and tear ii) ageing results from accumulated changes in the way DNA is packaged away inside a cell nucleus and iii) ageing results from a decline in a biological system called the ‘Wnt signalling pathway’, which is known to be required for tissue growth and repair. The team will use a range of approaches including cell culture, animal models, analysis of tissues from very old humans and baboons and state-of-the-art whole genome analysis.

Mechanisms of reduced T cell immunity in older adults
Professor Arne Akbar, University College London
Professor Janko Nikolich-Zugich, University of Arizona

This collaboration will study the decline in immunity of the skin of older people. Specifically, it will seek to combine a mouse model and a human model of skin immunity to get optimum experimental data about the way that immune system cells respond to infection in the skin. The aim is to develop an experimental system where parallel investigations in mice and humans will give optimal data to determine if it is possible to reverse the problem of reduced immunity in older skin.

Steroid Receptors and transcriptional control of thymic rebound
Dr Clare Blackburn, University of Edinburgh
Professor Nancy Manley, University of Georgia

These researchers will examine the effects of fluctuating hormone levels on older people’s immune systems. One of the crucial contributing factors in reduced immunity in older people is degeneration of an organ – the thymus – where important elements of the immune system develop and are maintained. It is thought that hormone levels in the body can have an impact on degeneration and regeneration of the thymus, but we do not know how. This project seeks to identify the mechanism by which hormones can affect the thymus.

Sources, transmission and effects of transcriptional noise in C.elegans ageing
Dr Queelim Ch’ng, King’s College London
Dr Hang Lu, Georgia Institute of Technology

These scientists will examine how environmental factors can impact the level of activity of certain genes involved in ageing. It is important to know this because the activity of these genes can have an impact on how long we live and how prone we may be to diseases of ageing. This project will ask what leads to fluctuations in the activity of ageing genes as a result of environmental factors, as well as examining the relationship between these fluctuations and variability in lifespan and ageing. The research will be carried out in the roundworm C.elegans, which is an excellent model for the genetics of human ageing.

Mechanisms of exceptional longevity in the world’s longest-live animal
Professor Chris Richardson, Bangor University
Professor Steve Austad, University of Texas Health Science Centre, San Antonio

Using an extraordinarily long-lived shellfish, the ocean quahog, as a model of longevity this team will evaluate three plausible mechanisms of ageing that may determine lifespan in shorter-lived species. Along with clams, scallops and oysters, the ocean quahog belongs to a group of animals called bivalve molluscs, which range in longevity from less than one year to, in the case of the quahog, 400 years. By comparing different members of the group the researchers hope that one or more of the three mechanisms of ageing will explain the huge range of longevity in bivalves. Because the symptoms of ageing in molluscs are similar to that in humans, e.g. muscle loss, this work will give insight into human ageing processes.

S6 Kinase and ageing
Professor Dominic Withers, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, Imperial College London
Dr Brian Kennedy, University of Washington

In order to grow and survive, it is important for cells and organisms to be able to sense nutrients. This function is carried out by a complicated system with many constituent parts, including a set of machinery called the mTOR/S6K pathway. It has previously been shown that changes in this pathway extend lifespan in yeast, worms and flies. Recently we have shown that mice lacking one element of the pathway - S6K1 - are long-lived and appear healthier as they age. This project will examine how this pathway regulates normal ageing and will look in detail at the pathway to see what role specific elements play. Some of these elements are already targets for drugs due to their roles in cancer and so there is a real possibility of drugs to prevent the deterioration of health in older people.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

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