Research

Life course perspective

Life expectancy is increasing in the developed world by more than five hours a day. Health, wellbeing and lifespan are influenced by complex interactions between biological, environmental and socioeconomic factors throughout life.

To fully realise the benefits of living longer it is essential that we understand the contribution of the factors that shape healthy ageing and susceptibility to disease across the age spectrum from birth to older age.

Objective

To drive forward interdisciplinary population-based research into health and wellbeing from childhood to older age.

Now

  • The MRC has renewed its commitment to supporting the world’s oldest birth cohort — the National Survey of Health and Development ‘1946 birth cohort’ — and is investing in The Life Study, a new birth cohort recruiting a large number of mothers and babies.
  • UK Biobank, a unique population cohort resource containing measurements of half a million adults aged between 40 and 69 at recruitment, is now being used by researchers.
  • Initiatives such as the MRC Data Support Service and the MRC Population Cohort Strategy provide infrastructure and guidance to get the most out of our rich, long-term population data resources.
  • Building on the jointly funded e-health informatics research centres, we have established the Farr Health Informatics Research Institute, a distributed UK institute that will link and interrogate research datasets and electronic patient records provided by initiatives such as the Clinical Practice Research Datalink in England and equivalent infrastructures in Scotland and Wales.
  • Within the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme, the MRC is partnering with the Economic and Social Research Council, policy-makers and a broad range of UK employers to investigate the effects of working later in life on health and wellbeing.

Future

  • We aim to identify age-related changes at the molecular, cellular and physiological levels that lead to an increased risk of ill health over the life course.
  • We seek to better understand the relationship between environmental, social and biological factors that determine health and disease in different populations.
  • We aim to oversee a dramatic change in the use of large sets of patient and research data, leading to better treatments, the identification of health risks and a greater understanding of the causes of diseases across ages and populations.
  • We seek to build stronger interdisciplinary research teams that bring together basic, clinical and population scientists, particularly those working where social science and computational biology meet.
  • We aim to make the most of our significant investment in population cohort studies by promoting collaboration between researchers, encouraging greater use of existing data, and ensuring that research findings inform policy and practice.

Making an impact: The power of medical bioinformatics to identify risk factors for disease

A number of epidemiological studies have reported links between increased levels of a protein called lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2 (Lp-PLA2) and the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, few studies have been large enough to reliably determine the effect of different levels of Lp-PLA2, or how it affects different groups of people (by age, gender or smoking status, for example).

The MRC, the British Heart Foundation and GlaxoSmithKline supported work to bring together and analyse 79,000 individual patient records from 32 studies. It established definitively the link between Lp-PLA2 and cardiovascular disease, showing that the protein was associated with the same risk of heart disease as high cholesterol or blood pressure. Drugs that modify Lp-PLA2 are already in clinical trials.

How

The MRC will continue to support discovery research and invest in population-based studies and underpinning resources. We will work closely with the research councils, Government departments and charity partners to maintain the UK’s global lead in research across the life course.

  • We will expand health informatics and research involving patient data in the UK through our investment in the Farr Health Informatics Research Institute and the UK Health Informatics Research Network, in particular by integrating high-throughput ‘omics’ data with patient and population data.
  • We will capitalise on our long-term funding of UK Biobank and large-scale population cohorts by supporting data sharing and best practice, encouraging research collaborations, and promoting methodological development, data analysis and linkage and the use of high-throughput technologies.
  • We will invest in interdisciplinary population-based research to address major challenges that will lead to deeper insights into the ageing process, maintaining health and the onset of disease across different populations.
  • Capitalising on pioneering MRC research, we will continue to support population studies to address maternal health, children’s diseases and how factors in early life affect later health.
  • We will support interdisciplinary and cross-sector ageing research via the cross-council MRC-led Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme, where collaborative approaches will lead to advances in scientific knowledge, therapeutic and technological developments and impact on policy and practice.
  • Our continuing partnerships with a range of research funders, Government Departments and stakeholders will enhance translation of research outputs into policy and practice.