News from Arthritis Research UK

New national centres announced for research into musculoskeletal ageing

Published on 12 January 2012

Leading research bodies, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Arthritis Research UK, have announced a £5m investment in research to reduce the pain and disability caused by ageing.

The two new Musculoskeletal Ageing Centres will bring together researchers from the Universities of Birmingham with Nottingham and from the Universities of Liverpool with Sheffield and Newcastle. The research will investigate why musculoskeletal tissue function and structure declines with age, exploring both risk factors and the biological processes involved.

The centres will focus on the role that diet and exercise could play in preventing musculoskeletal ageing. Currently older people are encouraged to exercise to ensure healthy joints in old age, yet there is a need to identify exercise regimes that are effective and are appropriate for the ageing population.

The number of people in the UK over 60 is increasing dramatically and by 2050 will include 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.

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.

Although much is known from human and animal experimental studies about factors that control tissue growth and repair, there is little knowledge on how this can be translated into novel diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic strategies.”

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.”

The MRC-Arthritis Research UK Centre for Musculoskeletal Ageing Research will integrate the work of world-class researchers, clinicians and health professionals at the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham Their work will focus on age-related loss of musculoskeletal function and the role of obesity, with the aim of reducing age-related disease largely through exercise and diet.

The MRC-Arthritis Research UK Centre for Integrated Research into Musculoskeletal Ageing is a collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield. The aim of the centre is to understand the processes and effects of ageing in tissues of the musculoskeletal system leading to osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and muscle weakness, how ageing contributes to disease and how this can be treated or prevented.

Lead researcher from the University of Birmingham, Professor Janet Lord said, “That so many of our population are now living well into their seventies and eighties should be a cause for celebration, but unless we can ensure that old age is spent in good health it will be a stage in life that is endured rather than enjoyed. Our centre will define the key factors, both biological and lifestyle, that drive age-related musculoskeletal frailty and will use our expertise and facilities for clinical interventions to develop and validate methods to maintain musculoskeletal health into old age. Crucially we will work with health psychologists to make sure that older adults will take up and adhere to any lifestyle programmes that we develop – ensuring that our ideas work in real life as well as in the laboratory!”

Lead researcher from the University of Nottingham, Professor Paul Greenhaff said:

“We are very excited about this frame shift in ageing research in the UK. The MRC-Arthritis Research UK Centre for Musculoskeletal Ageing Research at the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham will focus on how ageing results in loss of musculoskeletal mass and function in humans and use this knowledge to intervene and minimise age-related musculoskeletal decline and disease. A major focus will be to develop positive exercise and diet interventions. The centre will bring together exceptional scientists, clinicians and industrial partners to build a world-leading research platform that will generate novel and clinically testable approaches to healthier musculoskeletal ageing.”

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

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.”

The MRC will contribute £3.75million and Arthritis Research UK £1.25million over five years, supported by contributions from the universities involved.