Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Biosciences Federation


  1.  The Biosciences Federation was founded in 2002 in order to create a single authority within the life sciences that decision-makers are able to consult for opinion and information to assist the formulation of public policy. It brings together the strengths of 33 member organisations, including the Institute of Biology, which represents 45 additional affiliated societies (see Appendix). The organisations that have already joined the Biosciences Federation represent a cumulative membership of some 70,000 bioscientists and cover the whole spectrum from physiology and neuroscience, biochemistry and microbiology to ecology and agriculture. The Biosciences Federation is a registered charity (no 1103894).

  2.  This submission was informed in particular by a contribution from the British Society for Research on Ageing. As a consequence of the expertise on which the Federation was able to call, the submission focuses on how advances in the knowledge of biological processes of ageing can improve the quality of life of older people, rather than on developments in technology and design.


  3.  Ageing is a normal biological process that is distinct from, but is a primary risk factor for, many late life degenerative diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. The ageing process also imposes physiological deficits on the organism that are potent causes of the increased mortality and morbidity seen in the elderly population, including cognitive decline, decline in muscle and bone strength and balance, decreased efficiency of the immune system, sensory impairments, incontinence, and dermatological problems. Thus, as a result of damage and disordered function at the cell and tissue levels, ageing produces increased frailty of the whole organism. Evidence suggests that many of the degenerative effects of the process will be ameliorated through appropriate environmental interventions, including improved nutrition and other lifestyle changes such as avoiding UV exposure. Genetic therapies might also become more relevant in the future.

Promising avenues of research

  4.  A high priority for research should be to understand how ageing is a risk factor for multiple diseases. This requires a deep understanding of the basic processes of cell biology, including cell division and processes leading to cell death, and the mechanisms of continued control of gene expression. Research in simple organisms has identified genes that have an important influence on life span. Genetic research will open up new approaches to prolonging healthy life.

  5.  Work with model organisms is revealing that interventions such as dietary restriction and reduced signalling through the insulin/insulin-like growth factor pathway can extend lifespan and delay the onset of ageing-related pathologies. The organism is kept in a youthful state for longer, and the effect appears to be conserved across the animal kingdom. The challenge in future years is to understand how this pathway determines lifespan so that physiological insights obtained can be harnessed to improve human well-being.

  6.  Patients with a rare genetic disease, Werner's syndrome, show the accelerated development of many classical age-related diseases. The syndrome is now known to be caused by the premature accumulation of "senescent" cells. Future research will focus on determining the scale of the contribution that such cells make to normal ageing, and developing treatments aimed at preventing their degenerative effects.

  7.  UK research has demonstrated that a loss of the ability to produce new T cells is a significant cause of the failure of the immune system to fight off infection. This decline in T cell production can be prevented in several types of elderly mammal by treatment with the hormone interleukin 7 (IL-7). It has also been shown that changes in the neuroendocrine axis, primarily a decline in level of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), predispose the elderly immune system to infection. The immune system is particularly vulnerable immediately after serious physical or emotional trauma such as a fall. Therapeutic intervention with IL-7 or DHEA could benefit older people within 5-10 years if suitably supported and translated into clinical practice.

  8.  The cognitive decline that accompanies normal ageing has a different etiology to that of senile dementia and remains poorly understood. Pharmaceutical companies have focused considerable research effort to developing medicines to treat senile dementia, but much less attention has been paid to the cognitive decline of ageing. What factors could counteract this? Is mental exercise as important as physical exercise in this regard? Could "smart drugs" help the elderly improve their mental performance? These are all important avenues for improving the well being of the population.

  9.  An important contributor to the reduced quality of life, and loss of independence, among the elderly is the decrease in muscle mass and reduced functional capacity of muscle. Because muscles lose their strength and bones their ability to heal, falls often lead to bone fracture, which can result in permanent immobility. Hip fracture is predisposed to by nutritional deficit, and is a major drain on the NHS and a social cost to the individuals concerned, and their families or other carers. Recent evidence has shown that community-based exercise training programmes in the healthy elderly and chronic age-related disease states can have profound effects in reversing muscle wasting and the accompanying functional deficit. Further work is required to elucidate the signalling events in muscle that result from exercise interventions.

Differences between sexes, and between different social and ethnic groups

  10.  Some differences would be expected between groups since longevity is recognised to be familial and to have a genetic predisposition. The sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone have important roles in the maintenance of effective skeletal muscle, while recent research has demonstrated that the immune system ages differently in men and women. The key organ responsible for the output of new T cells is the thymus, and this organ atrophies more rapidly in men than women. This appears to correlate with the increased rate of death from infection seen in elderly men, and the increased frequency of autoimmune diseases seen in elderly women. Ethnicity, environment and cultural practice are difficult to separate but all clearly influence ageing. Both diet (paragraph 5) and exercise (paragraph 9) affect ageing-related pathologies and a healthy lifestyle is more difficult for disadvantaged social groups to achieve.


  11.  More work is needed on materials used in joint prostheses to make the replacements last longer. Cross-disciplinary work in electronics and mechanics is required to develop robotics linking nerve function and muscle control. Functional electrical stimulation, that currently enables some stroke victims to be more mobile and hence less dependent, should be extended to facilitate upper body functions in the ageing.


How effectively is research coordinated?

  12.  National coordination to date has been largely ineffective at the research level, despite the creation of the National Collaboration on Ageing Research. There are two types of deficiencies: translating research discoveries made under the remit of one Research Council to clinical research sponsored by a second Research Council; and securing funding for work that currently falls between the remits of two Councils. BBSRC and EPSRC have had some success in integrating their research programmes with those of the major charities funding ageing research. The BBSRC's Experimental Research on Ageing programme, for instance, includes observers from the charity Research into Ageing. To achieve effective cooperation with this sector government must recognise that charities are mission focused and so only a small proportion of the available ageing research will be of value to any particular organisation, and that even an interested charity has only limited funds available for research.

  13.  To maximise the UK's return on international coordination requires recognition that (a) effective national coordination must be in place, (b) a national strategy for ageing research must have been agreed with the research community and underpinned with adequate resources, and (c) the international situation itself is highly dynamic so the UK must be opportunistic in finding partners. Within European Framework programmes there have been some notable triumphs for individual researchers, and some valuable networking activities have been undertaken (eg the IMAGINE network on immune ageing research in Europe). However, it is probably fair to say that the UK has not obtained full value from EU funding instruments. The impending requirement for UK institutions to secure the full economic cost of research currently threatens future UK involvement in European funding programmes.

  14.  At the community level, too, there is scope for translating the outcome of research much more effectively into clinical practice. Osteoporosis is a major cause of incapacity among the elderly, yet a recent EU report found that the UK has the lowest provision for bone densitometry of any member state. Likewise, vitamin D deficiency is known to be an important cause of skeletal morbidity in the elderly, and several studies have shown that giving vitamin D and calcium supplementation to elderly institutionalised individuals is associated with a significant reduction in the occurrence of fractures. Existing recommendations from expert groups including the Royal College of Physicians and the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy remain largely unknown by the health professional community, and are yet to be translated into effective policy in spite of national service frameworks.

  15.  Attitudes of the elderly to lifestyle and nutrition impinge so much on the effectiveness of health promotion issues that any ambitions for an increased healthy life expectancy will require a good deal of effective, real-time communication between science researchers, health practitioners and customer representatives on such matters as target setting, resource allocation and modes of delivery.

Have the correct research priorities been identified?

  16.  Following the identification in 1994-95 of the ageing population as a Foresight priority area BBSRC has run two successive special initiatives, the Science of Ageing (SAGE) and Experimental Research on Ageing (ERA) programmes. The British Society for Research on Ageing considers that the areas selected for support under these programmes have captured much that basic biology has to offer in meeting the challenge posed by the ageing population.

  17.  However, at the awards stage of SAGE it became clear that the UK lacked a strong base in demographic analysis as applied to ageing research, and at that of ERA it was apparent that linkages between biological chemistry and gerontology could be usefully developed.

Is there sufficient research capability in the UK?

  18.  The Biosciences Federation is confident that the UK has sufficient research expertise to tackle all aspects of ageing research, but funding is a major problem. While the BBSRC programmes identified the right priorities, the mode of special initiative support made it difficult to sustain delivery of research in particular areas for longer than three years. Of the 28 SAGE principal investigators only 10 were able to progress their research subsequently under the ERA application criteria. This could allow gaps in UK research to develop. The capacity to conduct national research cannot be grown and sustained through this type of funding instrument. Some of the promising research highlighted in paragraphs 4-9 will require sustained investment over an extended time period. In general terms, ageing-related research receives only a fraction of the funding that goes into cancer and cardiovascular disease.

  19.  The largest US sponsor of ageing research, the National Institute on Ageing, has a budget four times the current per capita annual expenditure on biological ageing research in the UK. To match US per capita spending in the UK would require an additional annual investment of about £5 million per annum, which would support a research community of about 40-60 research groups working in all areas endorsed by SAGE and ERA. The multi-disciplinary nature of ageing research requires that this should be cross-Council funding.

Is the research being used to inform policy?

  20.  The Federation believes that research is not being used effectively to inform policy. There is no over-arching body taking responsibility for research specifically aimed at increasing or extending healthy life-span. The greatest missing element is a unifying research environment that brings all ideas together. The extreme complexity of the issues, and limited funding, mean that there is a requirement to prioritise approaches.

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