Searching for the answers 

February 1, 2018

As Newcastle leads the way with medical research into ageing, Deborah Busby speaks to the director of the NIHR Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre, Professor Avan Sayer, to find out more

Against a backdrop of the widespread growing concern at the UK’s ageing population and what is being done to cater for that in years to come, surprisingly, ageing remains a niche area of research with significantly less resources channelled into it than most other major areas of clinical need.

But while many calls have been made for more research to be done in this area to help address the projected issues, for many years, Newcastle has been ahead of the curve through its work in ageing. Regarded far and wide as being the global leader in research into many facets of ageing, the city’s work is being felt on an international scale as it works to improve the lives of people as they grow older.

One of the key components in Newcastle’s portfolio is the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). A partnership between the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Faculty of Medicine at Newcastle University – both globally-recognised authorities in their own right – has created a centre with a mission to improve lives through world-class research in ageing and long-term conditions. The centre was recently awarded NIHR funding for a third time, a rarity outside the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge, with a £16.2 million award to help fund its work.

The team is led by Professor Avan Sayer, director of the BRC, who is herself known around the world for her work in ageing – particularly in sarcopenia and frailty – and her appointment has helped to raise the levels of expertise in Newcastle even further.

The BRC carries out research into the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of five main research areas: dementia, liver disease, musculoskeletal disease, neuromuscular disease, and skin and oral disease – and is the global leader across all of them. Through the arrival of Professor Sayer, Newcastle is now also carrying out world-leading work into ageing syndromes.

Having joined BRC in 2016, relocating from the South to do so, Professor Sayer is hugely proud of the work being done.

“We are unique here in Newcastle and we are renowned for our work. We are leading on some superb research, which will hopefully go on to change people’s lives. One of the main reasons Newcastle is known nationally and internationally is for the way we combine clinical and research expertise; and with the BRC, our team extends across the university and the trust, which is a very powerful combination,” says Professor Sayer, who holds positions as Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Newcastle University and Honorary Consultant in Geriatric Medicine with the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

“We have the critical mass here and a wide range of skills and research areas. That is a very appealing prospect for anyone working in this area internationally. People want to be part of what is happening here, and that certainly appealed to me.

“In my previous role [Professor Sayer was Professor of Geriatric Medicine and MRC Principal Investigator and Programme Leader at the University of Southampton], I collaborated with Newcastle and, of course, knew of their reputation for their work in ageing, so when the opportunity came along to become director of the BRC, I jumped at the chance. It’s a big job but a great opportunity, and we are doing some important things here.”

While there are many research projects underway, Professor Sayer points to two she believes help to articulate the breadth of what is tackled by the BRC. The AuToDeCRA project seeks to develop new ways of treating rheumatoid arthritis, led by world authority Professor John Isaacs. While traditionally tablets may be prescribed, this project pioneers the use of cellular therapy. Having been in the early research stage, it is now ready to take forward and potentially go on to major trials.

Another project – the first in Professor Sayer’s specialist area of ageing syndromes – is the MIlkMAN study to look at whether sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass and function with age, can be slowed through the consumption of milk alongside resistance exercise. A pilot is due to get underway in the near future, following a funding award from the BRC.

“Our research is about driving forward the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of a whole range of long-term conditions. There are a number of projects underway and there are many phases to these projects and we are absolutely at the forefront of this field in Newcastle,” says Professor Sayer.

“Going forward, and for the longer term, what is important is capacity building. We have great projects really important projects, but we need to make sure we have the people to sustain this work. We have just appointed our latest cohort of PhD students and we have 13 young people starting, which is very exciting. They are the future of our research.

“It is true to say there is a national shortage in health research for older people that moves from the bench to the bedside, and that is despite our ageing population. We need to encourage young people into this career and support them in their research. Newcastle has more than most but nationally, there needs to be more of a link between providing the best healthcare for older people and building capacity in medical research; that is very important.

“Fortunately, as a centre of excellence, Newcastle is leading the way in this area, and we are really well placed to find answers to the many critical questions to do with ageing.”

NIHR Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre