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Fundamental ageing research: the foundation for future healthcare innovations - the Babraham Institute

The Babraham Institute, an internationally regarded life sciences institute just outside Cambridge, undertakes fundamental biological research with the vision of securing lifelong health.

Living well for longer

Scientific progress in recent centuries has driven incredible advances in human health such that life expectancies are higher than ever before. Yet improvement in healthy life span – the time period in which we’re still fit and active, sometimes called health span – has been minimal. Almost one in five people in the UK are now over 65 years old and this is expected to rise to one in four by 2050. The likely impact of this will be an extension of our working lives with many of us working beyond current retirement age. How can we maximise our health in those later years? By studying how cells in our body specialise, regulate their genes, communicate and defend themselves against illness, research at the Babraham Institute delivers 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. A deeper understanding of ageing biology could ultimately lead to lifestyle changes, policies and treatments that help people to stay healthier as they age.Scientific progress in recent centuries has driven incredible advances in human health such that life expectancies are higher than ever before. Yet improvement in healthy life span – the time period in which we’re still fit and active, sometimes called health span – has been minimal. Almost one in five people in the UK are now over 65 years old and this is expected to rise to one in four by 2050. The likely impact of this will be an extension of our working lives with many of us working beyond current retirement age. How can we maximise our health in those later years? By studying how cells in our body specialise, regulate their genes, communicate and defend themselves against illness, research at the Babraham Institute delivers 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. A deeper understanding of ageing biology could ultimately lead to lifestyle changes, policies and treatments that help people to stay healthier as they age.

To achieve those impacts, Babraham Institute researchers work closely with other academics, commercial bioscience companies and policy makers to ensure that the full potential of our discoveries can be realised as quickly as possible. Some of our collaborators share the Babraham Research Campus with us – a co-location of the Institute’s world-class research and scientific facilities with innovative bioscience enterprise. We are also committed to maximising the impacts of our work in all areas of society, for example by sharing our findings and discussing research with schools and the public.

Excellence in life science research

The biology of ageing is generally not well understood, so we take a fundamental approach to understanding how our bodies changes as we age. It's not yet possible to directly intervene in the human ageing process. Instead, we use a combination of cell and tissue culture, human samples, animal models and computational models to examine and understand the basic principles of biological ageing.

The Institute's research is organised into three complementary programmes:

Our Epigenetics Programme investigates how cell-type specific patterns of gene expression are established in early development and how the regulation of our genes changes as we age. Different genes can be turned on or off in different cells and at different times. This control can be affected by our lifestyles, environment and even the lives of previous generations, so it provides a complex link between daily living, our surroundings and our genes. Unpicking the complexity of what drives and defines cellular identity is essential for future healthcare revolutions such as the use of adult stem cells in therapeutic applications as well as epigenetics-based treatments for cancer.

The Lymphocyte Signalling Programme undertakes research into 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 and why older people also show a weakened response to vaccination. 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 self-damaging conditions. Interventions to prevent this decline or to boost the immune response in older people will be a major step towards achieving a healthier older age.

The Signalling Programme is making new discoveries into 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. Fundamental cell biology research at the Babraham Institute is laying the groundwork for new treatments for cancers, chronic inflammation and other diseases, all caused by defects in the mechanism that transmits signals within cells. Thirty years of pioneering research at the Institute on the PI3-kinase signalling pathway has established the PI3-kinase (PI3K) family of enzymes as a major drug target. Most major pharma now have PI3K research programmes.

The Institute’s research programmes utilise our nine state-of-the-art facilities, providing science services from genome sequencing to protein quantification and the latest imaging techniques. In addition to supporting our research discoveries, our facilities are also used by commercial companies on the Babraham Research Campus and beyond. The Institute’s research and our facilities are supported by core funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in addition to competitively-awarded grant income.

Looking to the future

Our open approach to collaboration and active commercialisation activities mean that our discoveries are providing the foundation for the development of better vaccines, and anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer drugs, to mitigate the age-related diseases encountered more often in the context of longer life expectancy.

We will continue to use our research to drive meaningful changes and greater scientific awareness around ageing and fundamental human biology to achieve longer and healthier lives.

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Content provided by the Babraham Institute. For more information please visit www.babraham.ac.uk.

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