Doug Turnbull is Professor of Neurology.
One of the clues to the complex causes of ageing could be found in the malfunctioning of tiny organisms within the cells of our bodies.
A key area of research at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing and Health is investigating what are known as mitochondria – tiny organelles within our cells which are responsible for converting fats, carbohydrates and oxygen into energy.
The more active our lifestyles, the more mitochondria will be found in our cells to create the energy expended when we take exercise. But there will be fewer if we lead sedentary lives or become less energetic as we grow older.
Professor of Neurology Doug Turnbull leads a research team that is looking at how abnormalities occurring in mitochondria could be contributing to the ageing process.
Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research
The importance of this work is reflected in the fact that in 2011 the team became a Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research. This makes it one of only 9 such internationally recognised centres of excellence in biomedical science, bringing funding support worth close to £6m.
Mitochondrial diseases can occur in all age groups and can be passed down maternally through families. So a particular highlight of the research in Newcastle has been the discovery of a potential IVF treatment that could prevent the diseases being transmitted in this way.
Where ageing is concerned, Professor Turnbull says a particular area of interest for their work is the study of the DNA of mitochondria. This differs from the DNA found in a cell’s nucleus which controls all its functions.
He explained that there are 13 essential proteins in mitochondrial DNA that are different. Mutations in that protein structure cause malfunction.
"We think that is one of the things contributing to the ageing process," says Professor Turnbull. "There is some evidence that once we get past a certain age the mutations in tissues begin accumulating more rapidly."
Encouragingly, regular exercise is believed to be one of the things that can help improve mitochondrial function. "If you exercise you increase the number of mitochondria. As we get older we’ve probably got less mitochondria and the functioning of the whole cell might go down, whereas if you increase the number through exercise then that might be beneficial."
The research being carried out by Professor Turnbull and his team is of international importance, and they are part of a global network of centres investigating mitochondria. He collaborates very closely with a team at Harvard University in the United States, for example.
"One of the places where we lead, I think, is in relation to looking at human tissues, because we have access to them. The infrastructure around ageing research in Newcastle is probably second to none, and that has been very helpful to us."
As well as the international network, there is multi-disciplinary collaboration with other research teams within the Faculty for Medical Sciences at Newcastle University and with clinicians in the city’s hospitals, the RVI and Freeman.
An example of this is the studies into muscle wastage with age being conducted with people involved in the MoveLab project. Professor Turnbull, who has spent his entire career in Newcastle, is working with fellow clinicians, consultant neurologist Dr Grainne Gorman and Professor of Movement and Metabolism Mike Trenell, in this area.
Their research teams are searching for both the causes of muscle wastage and possible ways they could intervene with treatments to prevent this happening. "Something that would subsequently change, improve, or alter mitochondrial function that maybe stopped your muscles wasting as much as you get older," said Professor Turnbull.
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