Scientists in Leicester are tackling two of the most critical questions to ageing - why do some people stay healthy in older age while others succumb to chronic disease, and what can we do about it?
The pioneering work is led by Sir Nilesh Samani, British Heart Foundation (BHF) Professor of Cardiology at the University of Leicester and Dr Veryan Codd, Lecturer in Cardiovascular Molecular Biology whose team, working with John Danesh, BHF Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, will take a close look at the way in which human cells withstand the passage of time.
They are particularly interested in tiny pieces of DNA called telomeres, which cap the ends of each chromosome and which shorten each time the cell divides. Eventually, they shorten enough to signal to the cell that it is time to die.
Interestingly, some people are born with shorter telomeres than others and some people have telomeres that shorten more quickly than others.
The scientists speculate that people who "biologically" age more quickly than others, as indicated by their telomere length, may develop diseases like heart disease and cancer at an earlier age, while others remain healthy to an advanced age despite similar lifestyles (which play a part in the development of disease).
The £2 million study is the largest of its kind ever undertaken and will help improve understanding of the biological ageing process. It is funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), British Heart Foundation (BHF) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It uses samples from UK Biobank, a major national health project that is following the lives of 500,000 volunteers who donated blood and provided lots of information about their health and lifestyles for research over many years.
The scientists will measure the average length of telomeres in all half a million UK Biobank participants, providing a rich resource of information for researchers studying a wide range of diseases.
"UK Biobank gives us a wonderful opportunity to study the mechanics of biological ageing, identify environmental and lifestyle determinants of telomere length and to better understand the importance of the variation in telomere length between individuals," said Professor Samani. "We are particularly excited to link our telomere length measurements to the genetic data that will be generated on all the UK Biobank participants, as this can help to establish whether any association we find between shorter telomeres and disease is a causal one."
The work will help with research into heart disease, which is Professor Samani and Dr Codd's particular area of interest. Their previous work has shown an association between shorter telomere length and risk of coronary heart disease.
Telomere length has also been linked to a range of cancers, and may be helpful in indicating prognosis.
Scientists studying dementia and other ageing diseases of the brain and diseases of muscle and bone are among other researchers in a wide range of areas who are also interested in the work.
"As the volunteers in UK Biobank get older and some develop age-related diseases and others not our telomere data will become increasingly valuable," said Professor Samani, who is also a Consultant at Leicester's Hospitals, based at Glenfield Hospital.
"Combining unprecedented scale and detail, our study has considerable potential to yield new and exciting insights into the biology and causes of ageing and age-associated diseases which may open up new avenues for prevention and treatment.
"The immense societal challenge posed by an increasingly ageing human population underscores the importance and relevance of this work."
UK Biobank is a national health resource funded by the MRC, Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health. It is supported by the NHS. More details can be found at http://www.ukbiobank.ac.uk
Notes to editors
Peter Thorley, University of Leicester News Centre, 0116 252 2415 firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Trehearne, UK Biobank, 01865-743960 or email@example.com
About the British Heart Foundation
Coronary heart disease is the UK's single biggest killer. For over 50 years we've pioneered research that's transformed the lives of people living with heart and circulatory conditions. Our work has been central to the discoveries of vital treatments that are changing the fight against heart disease. But so many people still need our help. From babies born with life-threatening heart problems to the many Mums, Dads and Grandparents who survive a heart attack and endure the daily battles of heart failure. Join our fight for every heartbeat in the UK. Every pound raised, minute of your time and donation to our shops will help make a difference to people's lives. For more information visit http://www.bhf.org.uk
Medical Research Council
The Medical Research Council is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-one MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. http://www.mrc.ac.uk
University of Leicester
The University of Leicester is a leading UK University committed to international excellence through the creation of world changing research and high quality, inspirational teaching. Leicester is consistently one of the UK's most socially inclusive universities with a long-standing commitment to providing fairer and equal access to higher education. Leicester is a three-time winner of the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education and is the only University to win seven consecutive awards from the Times Higher. Leicester is ranked among the top one per-cent of universities in the world by the THE World University Rankings
Bioscience for the future
The BBSRC is one of seven Research Councils that work together as Research Councils UK (RCUK). It is funded by the Government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). It supports around 1,600 scientists and 2,000 research students in universities and institutes across the UK.