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Case studies: Healthy society

MRC celebrates longest running British ‘baby-boomer’ study

The MRC recently celebrated the 65th birthday of Britain’s longest-running ‘baby-boomer’ study and its 5,000 participants - who have taken part in the study since their birth in the same week of March 1946. The life-long study, called the National Survey of Health and Development (NHSD), has provided the evidence base for widespread education and health policy and practice for over half a century. As the baby boomers now enter retirement, newly collected data from the study will provide evidence about the prevalence of health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and mobility problems. In today’s ageing society, the new data will be crucial for those planning future social and health care services.

The birthday and associated media activity coincided with BEIS’ announcement to provide £33.5m funding for a brand new birth cohort, reaffirming the value of cohorts and research that looks at and health and wellbeing over the life course. The new cohort, which is supported by ESRC and MRC, will follow in the footsteps of NSHD – drawing on findings from this baby-boomer study to learn more about child health and wellbeing in the 21st century.

Professor Diana Kuh, director of the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing which runs the NSHD, said: “The MRC 1946 ‘baby-boomer’ study is the jewel in the crown of life-long research studies. Cohort studies have a pivotal role in painting a picture of the health and wellbeing of society and are essential sources of data for a whole host of diseases and health challenges for the population today. The new data we are collecting provides unrivalled opportunities to extend the findings into the seventh decade and to understand how to maintain quality of life in the later years.”

The NSHD study is available here and from the MRC news pages here.

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Space scientists and art historians working together to reveal secrets of Tudor Reformation

Cutting-edge space science technology of the sort used to analyse moon rock is being applied to fragments of 16th-century tombs. Scientists from the Space Research Centre in Leicester are working with an art historian from the nearby university as well as academics from Oxford and Yale in a three-year project that hopes to shed new light on our understanding of the Tudor Reformation.

The tombs of the Howard family, the extremely wealthy and powerful Dukes of Norfolk, are at the parish church in Framlingham. However, they were originally sited 40 miles away at Thetford Priory, until Henry VIII had it dissolved in 1539. They were moved and reassembled at Framlingham sometime in the 1540s while the third duke languished in the Tower of London. What appear to be fragments of the original tombs were unearthed at Thetford by archaeologists in 1934, but languished in a warehouse for decades and were only recently re-discovered

Leicester University art historian Dr Phillip Lindley was called in to investigate the fragments and was immediately fascinated. He wanted to take the tombs apart and investigate how they were reassembled, but due to their fragility this was not possible, so he spoke to scientists at the Space Research Centre who proposed that he scan them, take them apart virtually and then put them back together again to look as the Howards originally intended.

The project has attracted funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and it is hoped that up-to-the-minute space technology will provide us with a new way of looking at clues that illuminate the past.

A full version of the above article appeared in the Guardian on 25 January and can be found here

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Early findings from Understanding Society show that sibling relationships could be key in improving children’s levels of happiness

Two pieces of research by academics at ISER and the University of Warwick have shown that the fewer siblings children have, the happier they are and that only children are the most contented. The findings also suggest that ‘sibling bullying’ could be part of the problem, with 31% of children saying they are hit, kicked or pushed by a brother or sister ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a lot’.

The figures are some of the first to emerge from Understanding Society, a study tracking the lives of people in 40,000 British households and were published recently in Britain in 2011, the State of the Nation, a magazine published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which funds the study.

The findings on children and happiness are based on in-depth questionnaires completed by 2,500 young people. Early data from the survey will be available to researchers in December and further early findings will be published in 2011.

The above article appeared in the winter edition of the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) Newsletter which is available to download here More information about Understanding Society can be found here

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Dr Jenny Tillotson and her work to create a ‘wearable emotional support system’

Press a button embedded in your clothing and at different times of the day a tiny release of fragrance, your own ‘scent bubble’, could soothe away your anxiety, cheer you up, or solve your sleeplessness.

The possibilities of such a fusion of technology, fashion and the most primitive of our senses, the sense of smell, have been the focus of Dr Jenny Tillotson’s research since she began a degree in Fashion Communication at Central Saint Martins in the early 1990s.

After gaining her PhD and spending time as a sensory designer for a London-based MIT Media Lab spinout company, Dr Tillotson joined Central Saint Martins, at the University of the Arts London, to work on ways to deliver fragrances using jewellery and clothing. An AHRC Small Award in 2002 enabled her to develop a prototype, a dress which could act as a ‘smart second skin’ by enabling wearers to refresh their scent throughout the day.

“I created a multi-sensory pop-up fashion book using microchips for sound, light-emitting diodes and sensory surfaces, but I couldn’t find a way to display scent in an electronic format, the only method on offer was scratch ‘n’ sniff!” she says.

At the time Dr Tillotson was also working in the geriatric and HIV and AIDS healthcare sector, and it was the experience of working as a ‘buddy’ for the Terrence Higgins Trust offering support to people living with HIV and AIDs that gave her the idea to create a ‘wearable emotional support system’ through clothing that could help improve wellbeing, reduce malodour and increase confidence.

Further AHRC funding supported the creation of the patented ‘eScent’ button, triggered by an electrical signal, which can be embedded in clothes and jewellery. This is now being commercialised through UAL’s spinout company, and its potential for ‘wellness’ products has attracted the interest of a major UK retailer. 

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Professor David Edwards and a new therapy to prevent brain injury at Birth

Professor David Edwards and his group at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Clinical Sciences Centre at Hammersmith aim to improve care for newborn infants, in particular to reduce the incidence and severity of brain injury from oxygen starvation at the time of birth. If babies don’t get enough oxygen (asphyxia) they suffer severe and permanent brain damage.

Up until now there have been no specific treatments available, but through a collaborative, long-term translational research programme which included substantial MRC investment, Professor Edwards and colleagues in Auckland, London and Bristol have developed the first effective treatment for this serious problem. They showed that ‘hypothermic neural rescue therapy’ - cooling the baby’s body temperature to 34°C – reduces the risks of death and disability in babies suffering birth asphyxia, and leads to fewer cases of cerebral palsy in survivors. A special 3.0 Tesla magnetic resonance (MR) scanner for neonatal research (part-funded by the MRC) was vital for these studies. Based in the neonatal intensive care unit at Hammersmith Hospital and using methods developed over several years, it enabled Professor Edwards to provide direct evidence that cooling reduced brain damage.

The team’s research has not only led to a simple and cost-effective clinical therapy, but it has also provided proof of principle that neural rescue is possible. They are now using their novel MR imaging biomarkers in early phase studies of other neuroprotectant treatments such as xenon gas or melatonin. The MRC has supported this research through Experimental Medicine grants. To read more about other types of experimental medicine supported by MRC go to the website here

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A new therapeutic target and a new treatment for asthma

Asthma is an inflammatory condition of the airways which affects an increasing number of people – currently about 300 million people worldwide. Professor Stephen Holgate is MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton where he leads an interdisciplinary research team working on the underlying mechanisms of asthma.

Working with a large patient cohort funded in part by an MRC research grant, Professor Holgate discovered ADAM33, a susceptibility gene for severe asthma. By studying the airways of volunteers with chronic corticosteroid refractory asthma, his team has since shown that ADAM33 is involved in changing the airway wall in chronic asthma, with gene variants allowing more or less angiogenesis - formation of new blood vessels - as the disease worsens. This mechanismis potentially a new therapeutic target and Professor Holgate’s continuing research is likely to lead to important advances in asthma treatment.

MRC funding has also enabled the team to carry out research which integrates evidence gained from cell lines, animal models and patients and healthy volunteers. They have shown that interferon beta deficiency caused worse symptoms in virally-induced asthma and in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). As a result, inhaled interferon beta is being developed as a new treatment through a spinout company, Synairgen, led by Professor Holgate and his colleagues Professors Donna Davies and Ratko Djukanovic. The technology that underpins the company’s work stems from at least 20 years of research, much of which has been supported by substantial long-term investments from the MRC. More information about MRC support for experimental medicine available here

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A Strategy for Collaborative Ageing Research

Today, one in six people in the UK are over 65 years old, and by 2033 it is projected that a quarter of the population will be. Ageing is inevitable, but it is not uniform. It is influenced by a variety of factors including genetics and socioeconomic circumstances and average life expectancy varies by as much as 14 years across the UK.

A Strategy for Collaborative Ageing Research in the UK identifies areas where experts can work together across disciplines and sectors to tackle the main health and wellbeing challenges that face our ageing society. The strategy has been developed as part of the Life Long Health and Wellbeing Programme, a research council and Health Department funding partnership that is led by the Medical Research Council (MRC). It advocates collaboration between experts from all disciplines as a means to solve the challenges an ageing population represents.

Researchers need to find ways to help people live healthier, more independent lives as they age, not just to improve individual quality of life, but to ease the economic strain of an increasingly older population.

The strategy advises that a concerted approach from biologists, clinicians, social scientists, engineers, economists, policy makers and service providers is required to tackle the toughest ageing challenges, for example dementia and frailty. It suggests that experts also need to work together to understand the health and social impacts of working for longer as retirement age increases.

The Strategy for Collaborative Ageing Research can be found here.

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Improving older people's lives in urban South India

Unlike developed countries, developing countries are ‘growing old before growing wealthy’. The World Health Organisation estimates that, within fifteen years, 75 per cent of the world’s population aged over 60 will be living in developing countries. Yet, ageing is relegated to the margins of development policy and practice with the potential of women and men in later life, and their needs, going largely unnoticed. Researchers from the New Dynamics of Ageing programme and their international partners have studied over 800 ‘below poverty line’ households in India to understand the factors determining older people’s capacity to be self supporting or to access support from their families and the state.

The research is successfully starting to bring ‘ageing’ issues such as pension provision and age discrimination to the attention of key policymakers on the basis of conference presentations, workshops, public hearings, media interviews and informal and formal meetings with officials, elected representatives, experts and the Tamil Nadu Advisor to the Supreme Court appointed Commissioners on Food Security.

This study also aims to place the issue of inadequate pension provision for the elderly higher on the policy agenda. In this study researchers found that 97 per cent of the elderly poor pay house rent that is in excess of the pension they receive. This study is bringing this stark fact to the attention of policymakers in Chennai, as well as challenging the negative paradigm of older people as a ’burden’ rather than a resource to be nurtured.

More information about the New Dynamics of Ageing programme can be found here

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