Our immune systems decline as we age, bringing an increased incidence and severity of both infections and cancer.
Researchers from University College London have demonstrated how an interplay between nutrition, metabolism and immunity is involved in the process of ageing.
The two new studies, supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, could help to enhance immunity to disease through dietary intervention and help make existing immune system therapies more effective.
In previous work, Professor Arne Akbar’s group at UCL showed that ageing in immune system cells known as ‘T lymphocytes’ was controlled by a molecule called ‘p38 MAPK’ which acts as a brake to prevent certain cellular functions.
They found that this braking action could be reversed.
In a new study published in the journal Nature Immunology the group shows that p38 MAPK is activated by low nutrient levels, coupled with signals associated with age, or senescence, within the cell.
It has been suspected for a long time that nutrition, metabolism and immunity are linked.
“Our life expectancy at birth is now twice as long as it was 150 years ago and our lifespans are on the increase,” says Professor Arne Akbar. .
“Healthcare costs associated with ageing are immense and there will be an increasing number of older people in our population who will have a lower quality of life due in part to immune decline.
“It is therefore essential to understand reasons why immunity decreases and whether it is possible to counteract some of these changes.
“An important question is whether this knowledge can be used to enhance immunity during ageing.”
Drug companies have already developed p38 inhibitors in attempts to treat inflammatory diseases.
One new possibility for their use is that these compounds could be used to enhance immunity in older people.
Another possibility is that dietary instead of drug intervention could be used to enhance immunity since metabolism and senescence are two sides of the same coin.”
Watch this video about the research: