Tackling the diseases of ageing: a new pharmaceutical approach? | University of Oxford
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Tackling the diseases of ageing: a new pharmaceutical approach?

Stuart Gillespie

Around the world, people are living longer lives. Figures show that global life expectancy increased by five years between 2000 and 2015. In the UK, lifespans were extended by 4.2 years for men and 1.9 years for women between 1990 and 2010.

Crucially, though, our ‘healthspans’ – the healthy proportion of our lives – have not kept up. For men in the UK, only 2.7 of those extra 4.2 years have been spent in good health; for women, the figure is 1.1 out of 1.9.

As a result, an average of 16-20% of later life is spent in ill health, with many older people managing multiple chronic age-related diseases: arthritis, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular or neurodegenerative conditions, to name a few.

How do we ensure that people can enjoy their increased lifespans in the 21st century, and ease the burden on health and care systems?

This coexistence of conditions – known as multimorbidity – has become the norm: in the US, 80% of Medicare users have at least two chronic conditions, while multimorbidity affects at least 50 million people in the EU. There are implications for quality of life, and for healthcare systems around the world. Evidence also suggests that multimorbidities develop substantially earlier in people from socially disadvantaged communities, and that polypharmacy – the taking of multiple medications concurrently – can leave patients at risk of adverse effects.

So how do we tackle this growing problem? How do we ensure that people can enjoy their increased lifespans in the 21st century, and ease the burden on health and care systems?

An Oxford University-based programme called UK SPINE was set up with government funding to accelerate innovations in healthy ageing by facilitating the free flow of knowledge between academia, industry, clinicians and investors.

There is growing evidence that targeting ageing mechanisms could reduce or delay age-related diseases

Underlying UK SPINE’s mission is the idea that targeting the ageing process itself – rather than individual conditions – may be a fruitful new approach to pharmaceutical discovery for multimorbidity. In a new paper published in the journal Drug Discovery Today, UK SPINE researchers say there is growing evidence that targeting ageing mechanisms could reduce or delay age-related diseases. Work is under way to identify drugs with the potential to be repurposed in healthy ageing, and to find new targets and biomarkers for the ageing process.

UK SPINE’s annual conference – reimagined as a series of online events taking place between 11 and 20 November – will explore this emerging area of research. Conference organiser Dr Bryan Adriaanse, UK SPINE’s knowledge exchange officer, said: ‘The UK government has set the challenge of ensuring people can enjoy an extra five years of healthy, independent life by 2035. Our conference addresses the question of how that can be achieved, covering topics including animal models of ageing, biomarkers for predicting multimorbidity, and how ageing science can improve outcomes for older people in the context of COVID-19.’

By learning more about the ageing process we can delay the onset of the conditions that do affect us as we age

Professor Chas Bountra, Oxford University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation, is Director of UK SPINE and will be speaking at the conference on the subject of ‘five extra healthy years’. He said: ‘The government has set a clear challenge to the research and innovation community of helping older people in the UK to live healthier lives as well as longer lives. Too many people now spend their later years taking a host of medications for a variety of co-occurring conditions – whether that’s heart disease, respiratory problems, musculoskeletal conditions like osteoarthritis, or dementia. We don’t go to our GPs because we’re getting older, but by learning more about the ageing process we can delay the onset of the conditions that do affect us as we age.

‘To achieve all this, we need to bring together the scientific, industry and clinical expertise that will enable the faster development of treatments that target not just the individual conditions associated with ageing, but the ageing process itself. UK SPINE was set up to do just that, fostering a culture of collaboration and determination to improve quality of life and reduce reliance on medication for our older citizens.’

Find out more about UK SPINE’s conference series, and sign up for individual events: https://www.kespine.org.uk/events/conference-2020-free-flow-knowledge-accelerate-innovation-healthy-ageing

UK SPINE is a national knowledge exchange network funded via Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund. It is led by the University of Oxford, in partnership with the University of Birmingham, the University of Dundee, the Medicines Discovery Catapult, and the Francis Crick Institute.