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New research aims to shed light on how ageing affects immunity

29 November 2011

Efforts to understand the effect of ageing on the immune system received a boost today as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) announced investment in a new £3.6M research project.

The project will be led by researchers from the Babraham Institute with partners from the University of Cambridge and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. The team hopes to illuminate a fundamental but little understood mechanism that controls cells in our immune system. Eventually, the researchers think that understanding this process will help efforts to keep people healthy in old age.

Weakened immunity is a serious problem for older people. As we age we tend to suffer from more, and more severe infections and this can seriously affect health and wellbeing. Also, because we become less able to develop new immunity, vaccination is less effective in the elderly.

This weakening of immunity is partly down to changes in a type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte. As we age, an ever greater proportion of our lymphocytes become inactive and this reduces the effectiveness of our immune systems.

This project aims to shed light on a process which controls how messages encoded in genes are delivered to cells. The scientists will be investigating how the process works in lymphocytes in mice and how it changes as the mice get older. Understanding this process will give us a much better idea about why immune system cells become less effective as animals get older and might open up new possibilities for improving health in older people.

Dr Martin Turner of the Babraham Institute, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, explains "Genes produce messages which tell cells how to behave - but they are written in a code. In order for a cell be able to read the instructions encoded in its genes the message needs to be re-written in a format that the cell can understand and this requires a series of intermediaries."

Dr Turner continues "Think of it like the process that goes on when producing a news report of some event. The same event can be reported quite differently from one newspaper to the next because of the decisions of journalists and editors along the way, and the action you take when reading about the event can depend on how you read about it. This is similar to what happens in a cell. The same gene can result in quite a different message depending on what intermediaries have altered it along the way."

One of these intermediaries is relatively poorly understood and yet is thought to be especially important in controlling the behaviour of lymphocytes. The team suspect that molecules called RNA binding proteins are important in controlling the development and activation of lymphocytes and so they hope to study how these work in mice how and how this changes as they age.

Professor Chris Smith of the University of Cambridge, another member of the team, adds "It is because these intermediate processes regulate how messages from genes are delivered that cells around the body are able to accomplish very different roles despite containing the same set of genes. We think one of these processes plays a particularly important role in controlling the behaviour of lymphocytes as an animal ages and yet, despite its importance, we know comparatively little about it."

Professor Douglas Kell BBSRC Chief Executive said "Maintaining and improving the health of older people so that they can continue to live enjoyable and productive lives into their eighties and beyond is a major challenge facing society. Victories in public health and nutrition continue to increase life span around the world dramatically, yet the lives of many older people are blighted by disability and disease.

"Combating the problems associated with old age will require an understanding at the most fundamental level of how our bodies change as we age. This team is well placed to deepen our understanding of how ageing affects our immune system and thus to provide knowledge that will be crucial for bioscience to help people live longer and healthier lives."

The research is being made possible by a BBSRC strategic Longer and Larger award (sLoLa). sLoLas provide internationally-leading research teams with the resources to conduct multidisciplinary research to address major global challenges.

ENDS

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .