University scientists launch new Musculoskeletal Ageing Centre

Scientists from the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle have been awarded £2.5 million to establish a new Medical Research Council (MRC) and Arthritis UK Centre for Integrated Research into Musculoskeletal Ageing.

The Centre will bring together world renowned researchers to investigate why musculoskeletal tissue function and structure declines with age, exploring both risk factors and the biological processes involved.

The number of people in the UK aged over 60 is increasing and by 2050 will represent 40 per cent of the population. Ageing-related decline in the function of musculoskeletal tissues - bones, joints, ligaments and muscles – are major contributors to declining physical function and poorer quality of life in older people including frailty, with its accompanying risk of falling.

The Centre will address the debate about whether age-related decline in bone density - a key feature of osteoporosis - and the degeneration of articular cartilage are due to ageing alone or whether the risk of developing these conditions increases with specific diseases in older people.

Researchers will explore why ageing is accompanied by the loss of muscle mass and investigate whether some stem cell activity could contribute to abnormal collagen production in age-related diseases.

Scientists are also looking at magnetic-resonance based methods to produce a model of the physiology of elite athletes to understand why exercise tolerance is limited in elderly people.

Professor Eugene McCloskey, from the University of Sheffield's Medical School, said: “The impact of ageing on the musculoskeletal system places one of the greatest burdens on individual patients and healthcare resources.

“The new Centre is an excellent opportunity to combine the expertise in Sheffield particularly that in bone and inflammation, with complementary expertise at Liverpool and Newcastle, to really drive basic and translational research forward rapidly in this important area. It provides a unique opportunity to seek answers that can apply across the whole system rather than focusing on any one tissue alone.”

Lead researcher from the University of Liverpool, Professor Malcolm Jackson said: “Our research is dedicated to identifying new interventions to improve and maintain musculoskeletal function. We are looking at how nutrition, exercise and pharmacological approaches can influence the ageing-process as well as the mechanisms that may halt musculoskeletal degeneration, which contributes significantly to frailty in older people.

“The various expertises across Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield will come together under the new Centre to develop new research collaborations and share world-leading facilities to help translate laboratory findings into diagnostic and therapeutic tools for the benefit of patients.”

Professor Tim Cawston, who is leading the work at Newcastle University said, “The new Centre represents an exciting opportunity to link expertise in the basic biology of ageing in Newcastle with investigations that look at all the different tissues of our joints, bone, cartilage, tendons and muscle.  Our aim is to deliver real benefit for people in delaying or preventing the development of conditions that limit mobility and vitality.”

Investment from MRC and Arthritis Research UK also includes a further £2.5 million to establish a Centre for Musculoskeletal Ageing Research at the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham, focusing on age-related loss of musculoskeletal function and the role of obesity.

Professor Stephen Holgate, Chair of the MRC Population and Systems Medicine Board said: “We plan to establish two international centres of excellence in research into the causes and mechanisms of musculoskeletal ageing and develop medical interventions that will improve musculoskeletal health.

“Poor musculoskeletal health has a significant impact upon quality of life, work productivity and health costs. An estimated 10 million working days are lost through musculoskeletal conditions and the annual cost to the NHS of musculoskeletal decline is £5.7 billion.”

Professor Alan Silman, medical director of Arthritis Research UK said: “There are 10 million people in the UK who are living with increasing pain and disability which impacts their quality of life. As our population ages, individuals want to remain fully active and physically independent for longer. There is an urgent need to develop simple solutions that can minimise the risk of arthritis and osteoporosis, as well as the muscle weakness and increasing physical frailty that occurs with age.”

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