UK SPINE: Healthy ageing programme sets sights on improving quality of life in later years

Medicines Discovery Catapult
  • National UK SPINE initiative created to help us stay healthy in later years
  • Innovative research aims to target the processes behind ageing rather than treating individual diseases
  • Flagship projects include new pipeline to transform and accelerate development of ageing therapeutics
  • Number of people over 75 in the UK will be one in seven by 2040, with challenges for health and care services alongside opportunities to improve quality of life

Figures show that we are spending more of our lives in poor health. In response, a national network is bringing together scientific expertise from across the UK to shed new light on the ageing process and help us stay healthy for longer.

The government-funded UK SPINE initiative was set up to focus on the country’s ageing population, investigating the complex pathways behind ageing and ensuring we can find new therapies to delay the onset of diseases that reduce our quality of life in later years.

The number of people over 75 in the UK today is one in 12, according to government statistics. By 2040, that figure is projected to rise to one in seven – with implications including increased demand on health and care services. Meanwhile, Public Health England’s Health Profile for England 2019 report found that, on average, people in England will live between a fifth and a quarter of their lives in poor health. In other words, our ‘healthspans’ are not keeping up with our lifespans.

The UK government has therefore set the challenge of ensuring people can enjoy an extra five years of healthy, independent life by 2035. This issue has been brought into sharp focus by the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected older people – and particularly those with existing health conditions.

Professor Chas Bountra of University of Oxford, Director of UK SPINE, 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.”

UK SPINE is overseeing a series of nationwide flagship research projects focusing on different aspects of ageing, with work now restarting in many settings following the coronavirus lockdown.

The first flagship project to be launched by UK SPINE is a new drug discovery model designed to speed up the development of innovative treatments for ageing and its associated diseases. The new ‘porous’ pipeline will encourage participation in ageing-related pharmaceutical discovery and make it more efficient – from identifying targets for new drugs that lie in the common underlying pathways of ageing, to deploying treatments clinically.

The emphasis will be on developing treatments aimed at tackling multimorbidities (multiple co-occurring conditions) in an effort to improve quality of life and reduce polypharmacy (the use of multiple medications concurrently).

The ‘porous’ model design means organisations such as university research teams or pharmaceutical companies will be able to enter the pipeline quickly and easily at different points, making the process more collaborative and reducing financial risk for industry in particular.

The flagship is spearheaded by Medicines Discovery Catapult and the University of Dundee’s Drug Discovery Unit, alongside the Universities of Oxford and Birmingham. It will result in a functioning and successful ageing therapeutic development pipeline that enhances and knits together the UK’s capabilities in this emerging area.

Professor Chris Molloy, Chief Executive of the Medicines Discovery Catapult, said:

‘This initiative combines the academic endeavour and industrial rigour necessary to prove new R&D concepts – and make the new medicines – that global industry can adopt and which will revolutionise the treatment of diseases of tissue ageing.”

Professor Sir Mike Ferguson, co-founder and Director of the Drug Discovery Unit at the University of Dundee, added:

“Academic discovery science and innovation often fails to meet its full potential for positive health impacts and economic development. That which is ‘too early, too risky’ for industry and venture capital needs to be efficiently de-risked through collaboration and cooperation. The aim is to serve up investment-ready opportunities that will benefit all of society. Tackling the multimorbidities of ageing is the perfect medium for this approach – from target selection using the best discovery and predictive science on core pathways, through to cleverly designed experimental clinical trials powered by the best biomarkers.”

As part of this flagship project, Professor Janet Lord of the University of Birmingham is leading work to identify new biomarkers (biological indicators) of ageing that will assist with drug discovery programmes.

Professor Lord said:

“How we deal with the multiple co-occurring diseases of ageing is going to be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century as people continue to live longer lives worldwide. Critical to this is identifying the most robust biological characteristics of ageing so that we can design better trials for potential treatments and reliably test their effectiveness.”

Other flagship projects include an investigation of whether a promising class of drugs known as bisphosphonates could be used to treat the multimorbidities associated with ageing.

UK SPINE is a national knowledge exchange network funded via Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund. It was created to accelerate innovations in healthy ageing amid increasing lifespans.