Studying the biology of ageing to help us live healthier lives
We’re all ageing, it’s a fact of life. And as we age we often experience many of the signs of ageing; aches, pains, illness, slower mental and physical responses. But do we have to? Is ageing really an essential part of getting older. Healthy ageing research at the Babraham Institute spans and unites our research themes. Our aim is to understand what changes in our body as we age and how that affects our lives. We hope that a deeper understanding of ageing biology could ultimately lead to lifestyle changes, policies and treatments that could help people to stay healthier as they age.
Scientific progress has driven incredible advances in recent centuries and life expectancies are higher than ever before. Yet improvement in healthy life span – the time when we’re still fit and active, often called health span – has been minimal. Almost 1 in 5 people in the UK are now over 65 years old and that proportion is rising. Partly as a result, many of us are now expected to work for longer into our old age and, in the current situation, by the time we do retire many of us will be too old to enjoy that time fully. By studying how cells in our body specialise, regulate their genes, communicate and defend themselves against illness, we hope to gain insights into why we age, why some of us age faster than others and how we can all take steps to stay healthy for longer.
The biology of ageing is generally not well understood, so we take a fundamental approach to understanding how our bodies change as we age. It’s not yet possible to directly intervene in the human ageing process. Instead, we mainly use a combination of cell culture, animal models, organoids, and computational models to examine and understand the basic principles of biological ageing.
There are many additional benefits to our work too. Many major illnesses including cancer, diabetes and heart disease become more common with age. Older people are also much more prone to contagious diseases such as flu. By understanding ageing, we can lay the foundations for ways to revitalise ageing systems in our bodies, which could greatly reduce the number of cases of diseases like these and many others.
Our Ageing Research
Ageing research is a highly collaborative focus of research at the Institute that includes all of our research groups. The many and varied effects of ageing represent a huge scientific challenge and each Programme at the Institute leads its own collaborative research focus.
Our Epigenetics Programme is leading the examination of changing gene regulation as we age. Our genes stay mostly the same throughout our lives, but different genes can be turned on or off in different cells and at different times. Epigenetics is the study of how gene expression is controlled. This control can be affected by our lifestyles, environment and even the lives of our ancestors, so it provides a complex link between daily living, our surroundings and our genes.
The Immunology Programme is investigating of the ageing immune system. As we get older, our immune system experiences many changes and becomes less able to respond to illness and infections. This is why older people are often more prone to illnesses such as the flu. It may also contribute to the increased number of cancer cases in older people. Loss of proper control over the immune system can also lead to rheumatoid arthritis and similar conditions.
In the Signalling Programme researchers are examining how cells communicate and co-ordinate their activities. Cells contain many chemical signalling systems for communication both inside and between cells. The Programme seeks to understand these processes and how they are affected by age, nutrition and the changing environment.
Some key discoveries:
- The epigenetic clock – We developed a way to study age-linked changes in gene regulation in mice, allowing us to study this process in detail and understand its effects. A very similar mechanism exists in humans. Read more
- Ageing and pregnancy – More women are choosing to have children later in life but this does come with increased risks. Our work in mice showed that it’s not just the age of the egg cell that affects this risk but also the age of the womb itself. If the same is true in humans it could be an important consideration for mothers to be. Read more
- Immune system diversity – The immune system produces antibodies in response to infections. Older people often produce a less diverse range of antibodies. Our research suggests an explanation for this. Read more
- Dietary restriction – Controlling diet can affect the rate of ageing thanks to links between cell signalling mechanisms and epigenetic regulation of genes. Read more
- Cell cannibalism – Sometimes cells eat each other in a process called entosis or cell cannibalism. Our work identified an unknown mechanism of entosis that might help to protect us from harmful damaged cells and could slow cancer growth. Read more
The Linterman lab examine the age-related decline of the immune system and are seeking ways to increase the success of vaccination programmes in older people. The Corcoran group are investigating the mechanisms that control the diversity of antibodies our bodies can produce and why this diversity decreases with age.
Immune cell function
The Turner group study lymphocyte cells in the immune system. They are interested in how molecules called RNA-binding proteins cause changes in the immune system.
Life and lifespan
The Rayon lab are studying the mechanisms that underlie biological timing to explore whether developmental timings can be controlled. Understanding these processes may have important implications for cellular regenerative medicine and extending lifespan.
The Houseley lab's research in yeast is using this model organism to define the genetic and environmental contributions to ageing, including exploring whether healthy ageing can be achieved by changing diet.
Recycling and cell death
Cells use autophagy to recycle old and broken parts of themselves into new ones. Failures in autophagy can lead to the build-up of damaged cell parts contributing to ageing and disease. Many teams including the Florey and Ktistakis groups study this process.
The David group are exploring the impact of extracellular protein aggregation using Caenorhabditis elegans, a well-established model for ageing research. New knowledge uncovered by this approach may uncover new therapies to achieve healthier ageing.