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Strategic Plan: Strategic research priority 3 – bioscience for health

Driving advances in fundamental bioscience for better health across the lifecourse, reducing the need for medical and social intervention.

The challenge

We are in a period of unprecedented demographic change, with the proportion of older people in the population increasing such that by 2050, 40% of the UK population will be over 50, and 25% over 65.

Case study: Gut health

Researchers at IFR have shown that some bacterial strains are specifically adapted to use sugars in the gut lining to aid colonisation. Understanding how different bacteria make use of these sugars will give new insights into what makes a healthy gut bacteria population. Image: Stephanie Schüller, University of East Anglia/IFR

Whilst lifespan is increasing, 'healthspan' is not lengthening at the same rate. Basic bioscience understanding and its effective translation is key to increasing the ability of individuals to lead healthier lives over their lifecourse, reducing pressure on the healthcare system.

Research opportunities

Basic bioscience is vital to reveal the biological mechanisms underlying normal physiology and homeostatic control during early development and across the lifespan. We aim to achieve a deep, integrated understanding of the 'healthy system' at multiple levels, and of the factors that maintain health and wellness under stress and biological or environmental challenge. This includes research to improve our understanding of how the ageing process itself results in increased frailty and loss of adaptability in areas such as musculoskeletal, brain, immune and sensory systems, and the gastrointestinal tract, as well as to increase our understanding of the regulatory networks underlying biological rhythms.

A key research goal is to develop a greater awareness of the roles of nutrition and physical activity and the mechanisms by which they affect development and health. Given the complex nature of these relationships, systems approaches are well suited to modelling the interplay over the lifecourse between the GI tract, nutrition, food properties, microbiome, endocrinology and metabolic regulation. This includes interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the influence of behaviour and environmental interactions on health, in partnership with ESRC and other Research Councils. Knowledge of how food interacts with the body is also highly relevant to the breeding of animals and plants for food production (see also Strategic Plan: Strategic research priority 1 – agriculture and food security).

Multidisciplinary research across areas such as stem cells, engineering and materials chemistry is needed for the development of new regenerative biology and tissue engineering applications to improve quality of life for the ageing population. In partnership with the MRC and EPSRC we will continue to support the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform.

Case study: Regenerative biology

A new technique, which could soon be used to heal shattered limbs, has been developed at the Universities of Edinburgh and Southampton. The technique involves the use of bone stem cells combined with a new lightweight degradable plastic that inserts into broken bones and encourages bone to re-grow. Over time, the plastic slowly degrades as the implant is replaced by newly grown bone. Image: iStock/Thinkstock

We will also support multidisciplinary studies that underpin improvements in both human and animal health. We will encourage collaboration between experts in human and veterinary sciences to improve the health and wellbeing of animals and humans in the context of 'One Health', particularly in vaccinology, infections of zoonotic origin, vector borne diseases and understanding antimicrobial resistance, linking into Strategic Plan: Strategic research priority 1 – agriculture and food security. Partnership between BBSRC and the MRC in this area will help to ensure impacts and added value are realised across the interface with medical research.

We will support bioscience research to help sustain lifelong health and wellbeing in the modern environment by building on a foundation of underpinning world class bioscience to identify novel prevention strategies or underpin new treatments. BBSRC will work closely with the MRC and other Research Councils to promote a joined-up approach to research funding across the spectrum from health to disease.

Basic bioscience funded by BBSRC underpins the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, which depend significantly on the strength of the public sector research base to maintain competitive advantage. This is especially so in the discovery and validation of new therapeutic agents and bioactive molecules, reducing cost of development and increasing efficiency of production. For example, integrated modelling of cells, tissues and associated signalling mechanisms will provide new insights to potential strategies for health monitoring and intervention, including drug targets and pharmaceuticals. In the longer term, the further refinement of virtual human metabolic networks will provide even greater increases in the efficiency of therapeutic design and development. Our funding for research and training also supports open innovation in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and emerging digital health sectors by providing expertise and skills within leading universities and research institutions, and through exploration of new collaborative models and access to resources.

2013/14 update – what's new?

  • Increased emphasis on addressing the societal grand challenge of maintaining health across the whole lifecourse
  • Increased prominence for research that will provide a better understanding of the mechanisms by which nutrition impacts on development and health
  • Greater focus on the opportunities to support multidisciplinary studies that underpin improvements in both human and animal health and wellbeing
  • Relocation of aspects of biopharmaceutical development (e.g. bioprocessing) to Strategic Plan: Strategic research priority 2 – industrial biotechnology and bioenergy
  • Recognition of the need to support the translation of basic bioscience, and of the role of key partnerships to deliver impact

Key priorities

  • Generate new knowledge of the biological mechanisms of development and the maintenance of health across the lifecourse
  • Support greater use of resources and data from cohort studies, biobanks and longitudinal monitoring to increase the translation of research from model organisms and systems to the human population
  • Improve understanding of how nutrition affects health across the lifecourse, including dietary exposure, epigenetics, and mechanisms of gut function
  • Generate new knowledge to advance regenerative biology, including stem cell and tissue engineering research, and accelerate the translation into applications
  • Support the multidisciplinary RCUK programme on Lifelong Health and Wellbeing, ensuring that outcomes are translated to improve quality of life
  • Develop and apply new tools in areas such as chemical biology, high resolution structural analysis, 'omics, biomarkers and bioimaging, high throughput and comparative genomics and modelling
  • Support fundamental research that requires collaboration between veterinary and human medicine to improve the health and wellbeing of animals and humans in the context of 'One Health'
  • Promote new ways of working to accelerate the translation of basic bioscience to benefit the health of the population across all stages of life