Leena Habiballa

Leena is one of NIHR Newcastle BRC’s rising stars. Nearly half way through her PhD at Newcastle University she has published her first review on ‘Mitochondria and cellular senescence: Implications for musculoskeletal ageing’.

Why did you choose to work in ageing?

I never thought of ageing as a potential career path until I chose to do a Biology of Ageing course in my third year at university. I learned two things while I was on that course. The first was that I came to understand ageing as a biological process that we can try and understand or manipulate on a cellular and molecular level. The second was that ageing is actually a disease, the symptoms of which are age-related conditions, such as heart, brain, liver, kidney failure etc. All these manifest as the result of the pathology of ageing. The implication here is that if we manage to stop ageing, we could cure all diseases of ageing – this completely blew my mind. It was through this shift that I became really interested in contributing to the research that is bringing us closer to understanding the mechanisms that can modulate the whole ageing phenotype. On an epidemiological level, we have an ageing population, with 11,000 people turning 65 every day, therefore age-related diseases are becoming more prominent in public health agendas, which is why it is also important to understand these ageing processes.

What’s your career path been like so far?

I did my BSc in Genetics at UCL, and then worked for two years in the NGO sector. I then came back into science by doing my postgraduate diploma in Genomic Medicine at the University of Manchester. I then discovered that bioinformatics was not really a passion of mine; I wanted to return to my wet lab background and explore my interest in ageing and now I’m here doing this PhD.

What does your research focus on?

I’m looking at muscle ageing: why it happens on a cellular and molecular level, and how we could slow down or eliminate this process to improve muscle health in older life.  The context for this research is that we lose our muscle mass and muscle strength with age – what we call sarcopenia. My project tackles muscle ageing through a cross disciplinary lens. I’m lucky to be part of, and have access to, the BRC’s lifecourse studies which are collecting muscle, lifestyle, physiological and RNAseq data from individuals aged 50-85. At the same time, I am also part of a group which specialises in understanding cellular senescence; a mechanism that has been shown to be causal in ageing of several organs including the brain, liver and bones (amongst others). I am now trying to understand how cellular senescence could bring about ageing in muscle and what therapeutic measures can be put in place to curb musculoskeletal decline.

Why is this area of research important?

Older people who suffer from sarcopenia lose their independence and are more prone to injuries and falls. Skeletal muscle is a very important organ – it regulates our basal metabolic rate, maintains muscle health through muscle-bone crosstalk, helps us achieve every day tasks and protects our vital organs; if it withers away, so do all of those functions. So it’s no surprise that musculoskeletal diseases are the most common cause of chronic disability worldwide. The cost of managing those musculoskeletal diseases are higher than breast cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease combined. It is a huge burden on the public health system and on people’s daily lives and so sarcopenia is important to study and prevent.

How does being part of the NIHR Academy feel?

It feels great, like being part of a family. All the other students that are with me on this journey are working on ageing as well, and it’s always so useful to talk to them over our monthly lunches and share the challenges and joy of our work. NIHR not only offers support to students financially, but offers opportunities and resources for the research itself, to widen your network and knowledge/skills repertoire. There are a lot of opportunities to get feedback from the public on your research, and also opportunities to learn from different departments and benefit from what they have to offer through official and non-official programmes. This variety of collaborations and skills is important because once you have completed your research it helps future proof you and your work in the field. I really enjoy being part of the NIHR Academy.

The BRC has many research themes, do you feel this has been useful for you carrying out your research?

My project lies within the overarching ‘Ageing Syndromes‘ theme. Ageing Syndromes are long-term conditions experienced by older people. Being part of the BRC means I can also access the expertise from the rest of its research themes. It’s been easier to contact muscle experts or people doing research on muscle in Newcastle because I am under the umbrella of the BRC and its research themes. I have been in contact with the MIU (Muscle Immunoanalysis Unit), and  Professor Sir Doug Turnbull’s group who work on mitochondria in the muscle, in order to benefit from their established knowledge about experimentation on muscle and how to analyse certain muscle stainings.

What has been the highlight of your time with us so far?

Publishing my first review – it was hard but the experience was very important early on for me. I have found writing my own paper has helped me to understand my work a little more; it’s enforced why I am doing it and why it is important. Another highlight was the BRC Showcase Event as it gave me the opportunity to mix with people of different backgrounds and expertise, including clinicians, basic scientists, epidemiologists and statisticians all working on age-related diseases. I presented a poster along with the other BRC students. This gave me the chance to strike up conversations and get feedback from experts from all walks of life, which really helped me come back to my research with more energy and different perspectives in my mind.

Can you tell me more about your publication that has just been released?

The paper is on musculoskeletal senescence; which is a topic that is just beginning to enter the spotlight but that has as of yet not been widely discussed. I read all the literature on this topic, trying to find as much evidence as possible that cellular senescence has a role to play in ageing; and on top of that that mitochondria could play a central role in causing cellular senescence in the muscle and would make a suitable target for therapeutic drugs. We then identified the questions in the field that researchers still need to work on. I tried to present my research and theoretical trajectory as the ideal approach to begin answering some of these questions.

Can you offer any advice to others wanting to release a publication?

Our PhD projects exist because there is a gap in knowledge in that field, so being able to identify that gap should be relatively easy. However really understanding the qualities of that gap and why your research is the best way to answer it is the starting point to any publication. Secondly do a lot of reading and really have your finger on the pulse of the field and understand what perspectives/approaches might be interesting to you and those doing research in this field. I would say write concisely, every line has to say something or further your argument in some way. If you don’t have enough data, release a review or a hypothesis paper. This will help start to establish your name in your field of research and demonstrate why your work is relevant.

What are you looking forward to and worried about during the remainder of your project?

I am worried about my experimental work and how far it will get in either confirming or denying my hypothesis. It’s hard to provide a timeline for yourself because you don’t know what is going to work, which is the point of the PhD; to do these experiments and see what will work. I might take one route and not get anywhere and another route which will quickly get results and information. On the other hand, I am really excited about working in a team that has expertise in both muscle and senescence. My PhD has given me the opportunity to visit the Mayo Clinic in the US, and I think this will be a really interesting and rewarding experience.

What do you enjoy doing when not working on you PhD?

I do have a lot of other interests and projects I am working on. I am working on a cookbook with a friend on Sudanese cuisine, which will be coming out this year. I also play drums, and write critical essays and poetry which I am trying to publish.

What’s your favourite thing about Newcastle?

The people. Everyone is just so friendly; there is a community feeling here that I have never found anywhere else. I really enjoy that about Newcastle and the North because it helps you slot right in and feel comfortable.

Read Leena’s first publication here