Understanding more about how we age: a trainee's story
Leena Habiballa studied for her PhD with the Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre. Her work focussed on senescence; understanding more about how we age on a cellular level. This is improving our understanding of the ageing process and working towards possible trials to look for treatments for ageing related conditions. She tells us about her experience of studying with us and what she hopes for this area of research in the future.
Can you give us a summary of your research?
With age we experience a loss of skeletal muscle strength, function, and mass. This has personal, social, and economic consequences including loss of independence, reduction in the quality of life, and high public health costs. My research aims to investigate cellular senescence as a potential driving mechanism of skeletal muscle ageing. Cellular senescence is a cell fate in response to various stressors that is accompanied by a host of phenotypic changes, such as growth arrest and a pro-inflammatory secretome, and is reinforced by auto/paracrine signalling networks.
Senescent cells amass with age at etiological sites in multiple tissues. They are also linked to the causes of multiple age-related conditions. Little is known about how much senescence may impact its component cells, despite the significant age-associated changes in skeletal muscle. Nor is it known what contribution it has to skeletal muscle ageing. My research aims to find out more about senescence in skeletal muscle tissue in a cell-specific manner, to determine its functional consequences with age.
What kind of changes do you hope your research will make possible in healthcare?
The discovery of senolytics (drugs that specifically eliminate senescent cells) has opened an innovative therapeutic horizon for the treatment of age-related diseases. Human clinical trials of senolytics have recently launched in patients with a range of diseases*. Results show a decrease in the senescent cell abundance and lessening of physical dysfunction in participants. These early indicators suggest a promising prospect for the treatment of the skeletal muscle ageing phenotype and sarcopenia. Given this, I hope that my research can contribute to a better understanding of the senescence profile in human skeletal muscle and its functional implications. This can hopefully guide future early interventions in this tissue.
* idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, systemic sclerosis, chronic kidney disease, and diabetes reported
Did your study involve patient/public volunteers? How important was their participation in your research?
Yes, my research involved skeletal muscle biopsies from participants recruited as part of the Newcastle BRC-funded MASS_Lifecourse study. As the field of cellular senescence moves further towards clinical applications in humans, it is important to get a better understanding of the characteristics of cellular senescence in skeletal muscle. Therefore, the public involvement in my project was crucial to enabling the translational element of my work.
What was the best thing about being an NIHR funded trainee?
I gained holistic scientific training, as well as the opportunity to develop personal and professional relationships. These have nurtured my capacities as a scientific thinker, writer, and communicator. I was also very lucky and spent part of my PhD researching skeletal muscle senescence at the Mayo Clinic. This widened the horizons of my research.
What are your next steps, or what would you like to do in the future?
I aim to transition into the world of scientific publishing. I hope that this will enable me to grow my skills in editorials and contribute to a different part of the scientific process.