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Boost for research on skin microbiome and healthy aging

11 March 2022

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Research into the skin microbiome on the Norwich Research Park is set to receive a share of £2 million, announced by the government to tackle healthy ageing.

Diverse groupings of researchers will study how to increase healthy lifespan and quality of life in old age and address health inequalities, across 11 new networks – thanks to funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Researchers at the University of East Anglia are part of one new network that will focus on how people’s skin microbiome is involved in healthy ageing. This new Skin Microbiome in Healthy Ageing network is led by the University of Bradford in collaboration with Queen Mary University of London, the University of Manchester and the University of Liverpool.

This will also be a boost for collaborative studies into the skin across the Norwich Research Park, through the Norwich Skin Platform.

“This a very exciting development for Norwich Skin Platform co-founded by me with my colleague Dr Damon Bevan in the School of Biological Sciences, UEA and working with Prof Marc Moncrieff, Prof Ketan Dhatariya and Prof Jeremy Turner at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Prof Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centre and Prof Mark Webber at the Quadram Institute.”

Prof Mark Webber is working on a study in the Quadram Institute into the composition of the skin microbiota in neonates.

“This is important as the bacteria we carry have roles in our health as well as sometimes causing disease. To minimise infections in neonates, antiseptics are crucial and we are studying how bacteria may be able to survive antiseptic exposure.”

“Our collaboration with the Norwich Skin Platform gives us a unique ability to study this on real human skin which makes the ability to translate our research into findings that may help patients much easier.”

The funding will support a new network, the Skin Microbiome in Healthy Ageing (SMiHA), bringing together multi-disciplinary research across the UK across universities, industry and healthcare to link changes in the skin microbiome to ageing and age-related conditions.

Dr Jelena Gavrilovic, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “Our skin is home to millions of microbes, which are usually ‘friendly’ – providing protection from infection by forming a shield against the invasion of disease-causing microbes into the body.

“The composition of the microbes alters with age, alongside changes to the skin such as thinning and dryness. The very elderly can suffer from chronically infected wounds which are resistant to treatment. And the hormonal changes of menopause cause alterations in the skin and its microbiome.

“This network aims to bring together skin scientists and microbiologists, clinicians and industry to better understand and target changes in the skin microbiome with ageing.

Prof Julie Thornton, from the University of Bradford, said: “We want to create a worldwide understanding of how ageing is influenced by skin bacteria.

“Recent studies have showed that the skin microbiome could be a more accurate predictor of chronological age than the gut microbiome.

“Although the gut microbiome has been extensively researched, and is known to impact ageing, there is little knowledge on the role of skin microbiome in ageing.

“This is why we have created the Skin Microbiome in Healthy Ageing (SMiHA) – a multi-disciplinary UK research community comprising of universities, industry, and healthcare practitioners, whose goal is to identify how changes in the composition of the skin microbiome reflect acceleration or deceleration of the ageing process and age specific disorders.

“Skin disorders occur from tiny infants to the very elderly and 50 per cent of the UK population suffer a microbiome associated skin complaint such as infant eczema or teenage acne each year.

“Management of infected wounds alone uses 5.5 per cent of total NHS expenditure and skin conditions are the most frequent reason for consultation in general practice.

“Poor skin health and chronic skin conditions, such as infected wounds, limits independence in the elderly population and represents a high economic burden. Without good skin health, day to day living is compromised.

“The network formed under the umbrella of this project will help to drive skin microbiome research towards intervening in age-related conditions and related systemic diseases through an expanded knowledge base from skin microbiome research.”

Prof Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), said: “At the heart of improved health and wellbeing is a deep, integrated understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that contribute to maintaining health across the full life course. An understanding that is underpinned by collaboration, partnerships and shared knowledge.

“By funding the Ageing Networks, we’re not only addressing a major societal challenge – we’re also stimulating multidisciplinary research and innovation, with the potential for some really exciting breakthroughs.”

Prof John Iredale, interim Executive Chair of Medical Research Council (MRC), said: “How to keep people healthier as they live longer is one of the biggest challenges facing 21st century medicine and our society.

“To make greater progress we need to transform how we conduct ageing research – both by bringing together scientists from many disciplines with the public, clinicians, policymakers and industry.

“The new networks we’re funding will build UK-wide collaborations to better understand the fundamentals of ageing, paving the way towards the development of novel interventions to prevent, halt or reverse aberrant ageing.”

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