Ageing is inevitable, but why do we tend to get infirm? A team from Liverpool University’s Department of Musculoskeletal and Ageing Science led by Dr Elizabeth Laird, has been given a grant as part of a wider initiative to study what causes age-related health problems.
The problem with ageing
When we age, some of us stay healthy, but others do not. Understanding why this is the case is a big question. Does the answer lie in our lifestyle, or is it something that is in our genes? Whatever the answer might be, finding it could help us either prevent or better treat the diseases, such as arthritis, we often associate with ageing.
Research into ageing is nothing new, and there are many teams across the world who are active in this area. However, what is uniquel about the grant that has just been awarded is that it gives a group of British scientists the ability to combine their collective expertise to get a better insight into the ageing process.
Ageing UK Network
The newly formed Ageing UK Network has been granted funding to start work across the United Kingdom. And one of the places leading the research is the University of Liverpool. Here Dr Elizabeth Laird heads a research group situated in the Institute of Life Course and Medical Sciences that investigates something called the “extracellular matrix” and how it changes during ageing.
What is this extracellular matrix?
Our bodies are a collection of cells that do different jobs that depend on where they are. The extracellular matrix is what holds these cells together in one place, and it is a three-dimensional structure of fluid, minerals, and molecules that varies depending on the part of the body it is part of (think solid bone and liquid blood for example) and influences what our cells do.
To give an idea of what the extracellular matrix is, the pictures below show an important component: collagen. These images were taken with a special microscope, called a fluorescence microscope, which allows us to see the organisation of collagen fibres, and the interplay between collagen (coloured green) and cells (coloured purple) in a piece of human body tissue.
The project Dr Laird leads -“ECMage”-, will use cutting edge technologies to study the changes extracellular matrix undergoes during ageing, and how these changes impact the ability of the body to repair and regenerate itself.
An example of this is shown in the image below, where a microscope specialised at looking very closely at cells – an electron microscope-, has captured a bone cell in the process of making collagen. The findings of this research have the potential to help elderly patients speed their recovery from injury and/or medical interventions such as surgery.
Country-wide (and maybe international) collaboration
The funding Dr Laird received is specifically for building networks of researchers with different expertise from the UK and abroad. Dr Laird explains:
“The network aims to bring together researchers from different disciplines to catalyse new approaches to study extracellular matrix ageing. Researchers will have the opportunity to participate in more than one ageing network, providing opportunities for cross-disciplinary and cross-sectorial connections.
“Network funding will be used to support pump-priming research, research skills exchanges, career development and networking events. We are aiming to make ECMage a springboard for researchers to come up with new ideas and useful methods to target the ageing of our organs and tissues.”
When asked what was new about this approach, Dr Laird replied: “Whist normal intellectual property processes will apply, incentivising people across sectors and disciplines to work together on key challenges relating to ageing is the novel aspect expected to drive innovative new approaches.”
In the immediate future Dr Laird will be working closely with researchers from Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Manchester, and Newcastle. However, the team hopes to welcome new members from across the UK and internationally.
This means the researchers will have a wide variety of interests. Dr Laird: “Within ECMage we are particularly keen on promoting a diverse membership across career stages, sector, and individual characteristics.” This means the network will build collaboration between researchers from different disciplines, such as physicists, chemists and computer scientists, who may not have worked in life sciences.
As for the direction of the research and what patient groups will benefit, this has not yet been decided. Dr Laird explains:” The direction will really be determined by the quality, collaborations and topics of the applications received for pump-priming and lab exchange funding. Other networks are more focussed on other aspects of infirmity such as cognitive frailty (CFIN) and immune system functioning (CARINA) for example. A key aim of our ECMage network is to improve models to study and modulate extracellular matrix ageing.”
Credit to Liverpool!
Liverpool stands to benefit from this initiative, by becoming a fore runner regarding ageing research, and maybe it will create new jobs as well. Dr Laird elaborates: “We expect the network to generate new fruitful collaborations for people to harness research funding or investment to take their ideas forward. Hence this may well create new job opportunities.“
And in the long run it may be key to keeping our citizens healthy for longer!
All we can say is:” Well done Dr Laird, and well done Liverpool University for being granted this funding”.
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