Institute for Ageing

Tomas von Zglinicki

Interview: Thomas von Zglinicki

Thomas von Zglinicki is Professor of Cellular Gerontology, and Deputy Director: Science, Newcastle Institute for Ageing.

As medical scientists at Newcastle University probe closer to the causes of ageing and age related diseases, they have confronted major challenges.

One of these is the role of telomeres – complex strands of molecules found on the ends of chromosomes in the nucleus of body cells. They can be likened to the plastic caps found on shoelaces.

Thomas von Zglinicki - interview page

World-leading discoveries about telomeres

The University’s Professor of Cellular Gerontology, Thomas von Zglinicki, heads a group of researchers who have been making world-leading discoveries about telomeres.

He explained that telomeres become progressively shortened when cells divide and replicate themselves because of their particular molecular structure, and their position at the end of chromosomes.

"The connection to ageing comes in because telomeres cannot shorten indefinitely," said Professor von Zglinicki. "As they become shorter they cannot fulfil their function anymore." As a cell is unable to repair this situation, one of two things happens. It either goes into ‘apoptosis’ – cell death – or into ‘senescence’, a state of permanent cell arrest.

"In many cells it is senescence and that is a very interesting cellular state which we have been working on quite a lot recently, and its relevance for ageing. Senescent cells are like the rotten fruit in a basket, they can compromise the function of whole organs," said Professor von Zglinicki.

Pioneering research by his group has revealed how oxidative damage shortens telomeres, possibly causing age related diseases. This comes when unwanted and highly reactive molecules – or free radicals - are produced by cells as they convert oxygen into energy.

Free radicals produce damage everywhere, but in telomeres it cannot be repaired and thus telomeres shorten. Consequently the cells replicate less well and enter senescence prematurely.

Added to this complex situation is the role of what is known as telomerase, which is an enzyme found in tumours and stem cells. The ability of these enzymes to maintain telomere length in stem cells could eventually mean scientists being able to harness telomerase to delay ageing in ordinary tissues. But this breakthrough has yet to be achieved.

Identifying the risk of developing age related diseases

However, in the meantime one of the major uses of the research findings is in using telomere lengths as a biomarker – that is, as a way of identifying the risk of age related diseases developing.

Professor von Zglinicki came to Newcastle University in 2000 because it had shown the foresight to develop excellent research facilities for studying the biology of ageing that he was unable to find at that time in his native Germany. His work has since made a big contribution to the University’s growing global reputation across the whole ageing agenda.

Although many new research centres have been established elsewhere in the past few years he is adamant that the momentum should be maintained at Newcastle, to build the critical mass of research capabilities.
"We are at a point now where we significantly better understand what ageing in a multi-cellular organism really is, and where it comes from," he said. "I hope that we will go further and continue to develop."

Read more about understanding the science of ageing.

Contact Thomas von Zglinicki about his research.