The BLAST (Building Links in Ageing Science and Translation) network brings together researchers from across the country to increase our understanding of how the ageing process causes illness and impairment in later life. It will inform the nationwide research agenda for the development of new tools and interventions to help people stay healthy as they grow old and treat conditions for which little can be done today.
Potential new developments include treatments aimed at removing or modifying senescent cells, which are known to drive ageing pathology. Identifying markers of ageing biology that can detect changes before the onset of illness, and that can be used to monitor the effectiveness of early treatments, is also a priority. The network will also look at regenerative approaches to improving health.
Breakthroughs such as these would greatly increase older people’s quality of life in the UK and have a significant impact on national productivity and wealth. Research in the USA, for example, found that adding just one year to healthy life expectancy would add trillions of dollars to the US economy. Similar savings are possible for the UK, with the new research placing the UK at the forefront of a burgeoning new biotech industry.
Launched on 8th March and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), the BLAST network is directed by two of the UK’s leading experts on ageing, Professor Lynne Cox of the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford and Professor Richard Faragher, Professor of Biogerontology in the School of Applied Sciences at University of Brighton. Key cross-disciplinary expertise is also contributed by Professor Richard Hartley, Professor of Chemical Biology at Glasgow University, and Dr Colin McClure of Queen’s University Belfast.
The BLAST project is one response to the UK Government’s pledge to increase the healthy life expectancy of the population by an extra five years by 2035 without increasing inequality. Ten other interdisciplinary ageing networks, bringing together forty UK universities, have also been funded by the BBSRC and MRC in this new initiative, with Professor Cox and Professor Faragher playing a key role in harmonising and facilitating this new national effort.
Professor Cox said: 'Major scientific advances over the past decade have shown that different age-related diseases stem from core biological processes that can be modified to improve health in later life. This is an incredibly exciting time to be working in ageing science, particularly as it may be possible not only to treat age-related diseases at cause but also to take a preventative approach. The interdisciplinary nature of the new ageing networks allows us to draw in expertise from across all academic disciplines and to work with clinicians, biotech, industry and policy makers to put research findings into practice.'
Professor Faragher added: 'A race is now on, and the countries and companies that can capitalise on the biology of ageing will be in a position to shape global healthcare provision as life expectancy continues to rise to levels previous generations could only dream of.'
In addition to her work running the Lab of Ageing and Cell Senescence at the University of Oxford, Professor Cox runs the Mellon Longevity Science programme at Oriel College and serves on the strategy board of the Oxford Ageing Research Collaborative Hub, the Clinical and Translational Science panel of the Biochemical Society, the Strategic Advisory Board and the Science, Technology and Genomics Board of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Longevity, and is co-chair of the Biology of Ageing group of the European Geriatric Medicine Society. She is one of the first British recipients of the US Glenn Foundation Award for research into biological mechanisms of ageing, awarded at the House of Lords in 2014.