Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Wellcome Trust


  1.  The Wellcome Trust is pleased to be given the opportunity to respond to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on the subject of Scientific Aspects of Ageing, and welcomes the setting up of the Sub-Committee to consider how science and technology can help an ageing population live a healthier and more active life.

  2.  The Trust is aware that medical advances and demographic transitions are having radical effects on population ageing. The estimated increase in world population over 65 years of age to 1.2 billion by 2025[13] presents a major public health challenge, especially for low and middle income countries that are also struggling with the double burden of disease—infectious and non-infectious diseases. In some developed countries the proportion of older persons is approaching 20 per cent, partly as a result of low fertility rates but also because of longevity. However, with advancing age comes adverse health and a debate on research and technology, as well as a public health approach to help improve people's prospect of a healthy and active life expectancy is opportune.


  3.  A significant proportion of the research funded by the Wellcome Trust is directly or indirectly related to ageing. Using a broad set of key words to define ageing related research we estimate the Trust has funded approximately £547 million of research in this area from 1994 to 2004: 16 per cent of the total research funded by the Trust in this period.

  4.  However, in its main programmes, the Trust has never given a specific priority to ageing related research so this funding reflects those research grants that have been awarded in competition with a wide range of other disciplines and in all likelihood will have many overlaps with them.

  5.  Therefore, in undertaking the work to complete this response, we found that there is a wide range of research that is related to ageing but a sub-set of this might be more narrowly focussed on, for example, conditions that affect the elderly. In order to discuss priorities and the co-ordination of funding it will be important to have a more focussed definition of the area. With regard to cancer, this is one of the tasks that the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) undertook when deciding on how to discuss prioritisation in that area. This model might be an appropriate one for the Committee to consider with regard to ageing research.

  6.  However, discussions with a limited number of Trust-funded scientists have highlighted specific areas that might benefit from greater attention. For example there appears to be a need for multidisciplinary teams in universities, bringing public health, clinical gerontologists and biological researchers together. This approach, together with wider use of medical care technology, could assist an ageing population live a healthier and more active life.


  7.  The Wellcome Trust is an independent, biomedical research-funding charity established under the will of Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936. Its mission is to foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health.

  8.  In the financial year ended 30 September 2003, the Trust's total charitable expenditure was over £500 million, the majority of which was to fund research in the UK.


  9.  The Trust does not have a special initiative on ageing research but it does fund research in many biomedical areas that are related, directly or indirectly, to ageing. For an insight into funding in these areas, we searched our databases for keywords and subject areas that cover some of the main diseases and disorders normally associated with advancing age. In addition to "ageing" or "longevity", cognitive function, joint diseases, stroke, cell biology and cell cycle are amongst the areas searched (see Annex 1); in total the Trust funded grants in the region of £547 million over the decade 1994-2004, representing about 16 per cent of the total funding portfolio. In addition, substantial investment has been made in medical imaging technology, infrastructure support, and genomic analysis of ageing bringing the total to £877 million (26 per cent) over the same period.

  10.  For the majority of the research that it supports the Trust operates a responsive mode funding mechanism. However, in addition to this there are a number of strategic initiatives that have been launched and those which relate to ageing have been listed below.

  11.   The Health Consequences of Population Change Programme ( This five-year initiative was launched in 2001 and established a £65 million fund to support several key areas aimed at research into the effects of demographic shifts and socio-economic changes on public health in the developing world including the ageing population.

  12.   The Cognitive Systems Foresight Project ( This is an area of multidisciplinary research highlighted by the Trust for funding, jointly with the UK Research Councils. Cognitive systems are natural or artificial information processing systems, including those responsible for perception, reasoning, decision-making, communication and action. Cognitive systems research is therefore an area that could have implications for assisting ageing and frail populations.

  13.   The UK Biobank ( The Trust is a major funder (together with the MRC and the Department of Health) of the UK Biobank, which will be the world's largest resource (500,000 individuals, between the ages of 45 and 69) for the study of the role of genes and the environment (or nature and nurture) in health and disease. Many diseases and disorders of old age (cancer, cardiovascular, diabetes, Alzheimer's, joint diseases, cognition/dementia, and quality of life) will form the basis of this resource to uncover the genetic and environmental factors that lead to these conditions. This combination of information from participants will create a powerful resource for biomedical researchers. It will enable them to improve our understanding of the biology of disease and develop improved diagnostic tools, prevention strategies and tailor made treatments for disorders that appear with advancing age. The pilot phase of volunteer recruitment is about to commence and will take five years to complete.

  14.  The concept of prospective longitudinal studies is to have the baseline measures in place, including biological samples, before the onset of disease. The primary goal is to provide research to enable the application of genomics technologies for patient management and intervention strategies rather than therapy.

  15.  As mentioned above the Trust has not previously highlighted ageing research as a specific priority and so we felt it was not appropriate for us to answer some of the specific questions regarding how ageing research is co-ordinated or prioritised. However, it is hoped the following general comments, arising from consultations with a limited number of Trust-funded scientists, will be useful to the inquiry:

    —  In general, basic research into disease mechanisms should be supplemented with a broader public health agenda to provide health protection and healthier lifestyle promotion together with primary/secondary prevention. A broader evidence base is needed since the number of older people participating in clinical trials is not representative of their number in the population. Since life expectancy is closely linked with social class, more research into social factors (such as access to health care, education) and the underlying reasons for this link is probably needed, but for which there is limited funding.

    —  Elucidating the role of genes and non-genetic factors (for example, environment, diet, exercise); research into disease mechanisms, pathogenesis and ageing mechanism(s)—for example, cell senescence, neuronal cell death, the role of telomerase, proteomic research/technology, are promising areas given the advances in genomic research and technology.

    —  Research into dementia (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's as examples), and motor neuron disorder, and model systems such as mutations in fruit flies (Drosophila) and worms (C. elegans) could provide molecular models into human ageing, which have not been fully exploited.

    —  The use of non-human primates to understand cognitive functions and test treatments for dementia is likely to increase. There are alternatives which could be used such as transgenic rodents genetically modified to have human-like nervous systems. However, the development of these models and in vitro (non-animal) alternatives could benefit from more targeted funding.

    —  While stem cell research (or therapeutic cloning) is a relatively young area and such therapies appear distant, the benefits could be high for future generations. The UK now leads in this burgeoning field given the recent ruling by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to allow scientists to clone human embryos. In this regard research using embryonic stem cells, understanding their differentiation and maintenance, in particular neuronal stem cells, could be exploited for research into cognitive function.

    —  Public health aspects of diet and exercise have an impact on healthy ageing. The World Health Organisation has been advocating a "life course approach" ( to reduce disability and delaying the onset of chronic diseases by the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, avoiding or reducing risk factors associated with some of the most common disabilities.

    —  Calorific restriction using animal modes could provide insights into the role of metabolic processes in ageing.

    —  Loss of muscle strength, bone loss and joint diseases; new technologies, such as tissue engineering, could focus on wound healing—especially bone fractures resulting from falls and accidents.

    —  In the field of population genomics, there is a high degree of international co-operation through EU initiatives and other organizations, eg the Public Population Project in Genomics (P3G, see which is an organization that aims to foster collaboration between researchers.

    —  Research into an ageing population covers basic, medical and social sciences. Capacity building for a multidisciplinary approach is needed and researchers should take advantage of existing networks, such as P3G, to establish collaborations and multidisciplinary teams.

    —  A recent study ( commissioned by the Wellcome Trust on Public Health Sciences: Challenges and opportunities, concluded that a national strategy is urgently needed to foster research into major public health problems in the UK. It is likely that research into ageing populations will fall within this category.

13   WHO World Health Report, 1998, UN Population Division, World Population Prospects (The 1994 Revision). Back

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