Dietary omega-3 improves the diversity of gut bacteria
New research from TwinsUK, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports last week suggests that including more dietary omega-3 fatty acids improves the diversity of bacteria found in our gut.
The study, carried out in 876 women from the TwinsUK cohort, looked at whether dietary intake of fatty acids affects the diversity of the gut microbiome. The authors found that the amount of omega-3 fatty acids correlates with improved bacterial diversity in the gut, and is specifically associated with “good” bacterial species. The effects of dietary omega-3 were also seen in metabolites produced by gut bacteria. Higher levels of beneficial compounds, including omega-3 itself as well as n-carbamyl glutamate (NCG) which has been linked to reduced gut inflammation in rats, were found in people with more omega-3 in their diets.
The findings suggest that we could improve our gut health through our diets and the team is now planning a new study to test whether giving omega-3 supplements might improve the diversity of gut bacteria in healthy volunteers.
The open access paper is available to read here.
Ideas that change healthcare: Our future growing older and what we can do now
By Dr Claire Steves
Our healthcare system faces myriad challenges in the next fifty years. We’ve been aware of our growing elderly population for many years, but so far little has been done to address the challenges this raises for the future of healthcare. Here, Dr Claire Steves lays out her vision of healthcare, and what we can do now to prevent current challenges becoming serious problems in the future.
This blog has been adapted from Claire’s speech at The King’s Fund’s Festival of Ideas event on 6th October 2017.
When asked to think about a way forward for healthcare, I think it’s first helpful to look back through the history of medicine. I like to think of medical history in three eras: the preservative, the diagnostic, and hopefully, in the future, the integrated era.
The first era of medicine: preservative
The premedical “preservative” era extends back for millennia. This era represents the majority of human history when the main health threats were starvation, and infection. Strategies that humans created then have had huge implications for human health now. Most important has been the use preservatives to avoid infection, and keep food and water fresh.
Our main healthcare resources to combat infection in the preservative era were salt for preserving meat, alcohol for fruit and most importantly water (if you had a liking for fermented products, you were much less likely to die of cholera!), and sugar, which was not only a preservative but also a valuable energy source. Our ancestors who chose these foods may have had a selective advantage, but that advantage is gone today.
Perhaps driven by this need to conserve energy, as adults we appear to have an increasing tendency to move as little as possible. As a mother of three boys, I’m intrigued that children have such an insatiable desire to move, and yet this seems to disappear as we age; with adult humans choosing energy conservation and sedentary lives.
Could it be that this preventative medicine and tendency to over eat and conserve energy means that we are programmed to prefer things that are no longer beneficial?
So, healthcare in the premedical, preservative era was preventative, practiced in the home by housewives and mothers. In industrial times, city planners became important, introducing water systems which improved sanitation. Then followed widespread use of antibiotics, the magic bullet of the 20th century. These two revolutions have contributed to the increase in our lifespan over the last 100 years.
“…over indulgence and a preference for moving as little as possible have impacts for healthcare”
But all medicine has side effects. The preservative era has left us with hangovers which we are still feeling today; over indulgence and a preference for moving as little as possible have impacts for healthcare. Emerging evidence that antibiotics have changed the microbes in our guts, with effects on a wide range of chronic conditions, suggests that even our medicines can leave us with new problems. These hangovers have particular relevance now that we are living much longer, and evidence suggests that these fractors are driving unhealthy ageing.
The second era of medicine: diagnostic
The healthcare service we have today has been built on the second era of medicine. I call this the era of the “unifying diagnosis”. This has been an era where we have honed the classification, diagnosis and treatment of specific diseases.
The massive advances in medicine have targeted single diseases or conditions and have been hugely successful in preventing and treating these diseases. The hospital has, for the most part been the central hub, and scientists, doctors and nurses have put the medicine into practice and the more specialised and focused the better.
These two eras of medicine – the preservative and the unifying diagnosis – have led to an increase in life expectancy, which has rocketed especially in the last 150 years. The slightly less good news, however, is that the average man now spends 16 years at the end of his life with functional limitation, and the average woman 19 years!
This means that sort of medicine costing the most, and with the biggest burden within our services has now changed. The main users of healthcare have also changed. The biggest burden of ill health is now shouldered by the oldest among us, and these people are not well served by the “unifying diagnotic” model.
“The biggest burden of ill health is now shouldered by the oldest among us, and these people are not well served by the [current] medical model”
The unsolved problem we are now facing has been called many names, most of them problematic: frailty, multimorbidity, Geriatric Giants. One thing is for sure, it’s no longer about ‘diagnosed cases’ and ‘controls’, but more about sliding scales with age. I particularly like the word “homeostenosis”.
Many of us are familiar with homeostasis – the ability to keep things in balance. Homeostenosis on the other hand is gradual reduction in the ability to keep things in balance, to the point where equilibrium is disturbed and the ability to function is lost. This process happens on multiple levels – physiologically, psychologically and socially.
So has the success of the unifying-diagnostic model of medicine, of diagnosis and treatment of specific diseases, revealed the problem that was laid down in the preservative pre-medical era? It seems that the institutions built during the diagnostic era don’t seem to be providing solutions which work. We need to ask ourselves: is our health service built to help people with multiple needs on multiple levels? This is what we need to focus on to reverse the side effects of our medical history.
“…is our health service built to help people with multiple needs on multiple levels?”
We need to restructure our medical thinking, and move our services away from the “unifying diagnosis” and centralised healthcare. We also need to counter those things that are driving the phenomenon of frailty: caloric over indulgence, a preference for moving as little as possible, and, probably, excessive antibiotic use. We must aim our research at understanding and avoiding homeostenosis.
In my view, we have three key challenges to overcome in the near future to ensure that healthcare meets the demands of the future:
We need to change how we research the ageing process
A great deal has been invested in studying ageing using animal models, with the worm C. elegans, the fruit fly Drosophila, and the mouse having been put to great use in studying ageing, particularly lifespan. All three have highlighted insulin signalling pathways, and energy restriction as key to ageing. Mice have been very useful in showing the effects of physical activity. But animal models can only get us so far; they have perhaps been less helpful in studying the effects of alcohol and salt. These may be particular human problems!
Recently, there have been really exciting advances in animal research. Microbiota transplantation experiments in gnotobiotic mice, bred in sterile conditions with no gut microbes, are helping us to understand how our microbes may affect multiple physiologies simultaneously.
Despite these advances, there are two problems. Firstly, it’s not all about age, or living longer. We really should be focusing our efforts on maximising the amount of time we can live in good health, without frailty. To do this, animal models need to address the quality of ageing, not the quantity. Secondly, clinicians need to be directly involved in ageing research. Cardiology and cancer made their huge advances by ensuring that every consultant clinician had a research degree. In Geriatric Medicine (the biggest medical specialty) only 1 in 50 senior trainees have a research degree, and very few medical schools have a professor of Geriatric Medicine. This must change.
We need to encourage older adults to take part in research
It’s very difficult to engage and recruit frail older people in research. There are challenges with access to the research environment and there are risks associated with using interventions in those who are frail.
For example, I am involved in a multicentre study of two promising new treatments for sarcopenia – muscle wasting with ageing. We’re finding it almost impossible to recruit patients yet we urgently need to do the research to help translate geroscience – the study of the relationship between aging and age-related diseases – into the real world.
We need to address the social divides in ageing
There is a worrying divide where frail ageing is happening much more to the less well off. The functional difficulties associated with ageing are much more of a problem in the lowest socio-economic groups. And this is a problem that is getting worse, not better. We must ensure that any solutions we create reverse this health injustice.
All this is taking shape within a larger unsettled political landscape. Our health service and our research capability are being heavily threatened by our divorce from the European Union. This threat overshadows potential progress over the next fifty years, which we should not be shy of debating.
What are the assets at our disposal as we move to integrated healthcare?
If there is a poly pill, we already know what it is. There is already one clear key to health happiness and resilience: physical activity. But how do we get the whole population moving and remove our addiction to the combustion engine?
The information revolution means the structure of society no longer needs to focus on urban centres. Commuting no longer needs to dominate, and we can free up time for physical activity. Could we envisage a world where miles are minimised and foot travel is the preferred of interacting with our environment?
“If there is a poly pill, we already know what it is… physical activity”
For this to work physical activity needs to be both the most pleasant and most efficient way of doing things, both in work and in leisure, and must be embedded in every aspect of policy planning. We need to prioritise physical activity everywhere, from buildings to public spaces, from homes to offices. We also need physical activity to thrive in schools – it must be part of our way of life early on.
The second asset we have at our fingertips is the potential of personalised medicine. Here I’m talking about the possibility that we can use multi-omic technology, such as genomics, metabolomics, and metagenomics to provide medicine and prevention plans tailored to individuals.
For ageing, imagine that a person at that moment in their lives, perhaps at 40 or 50, when they start to realise that they are not invincible, that mortality will come also to them, and that perhaps they need to make some changes. Imagine they could have a series of tests that could show them how they are likely to age, and how that could change if they were to make some targeted lifestyle changes. Could this empower and motivate personal change?
This approach has huge potential, but we need to ensure that we do not widen existing health inequalities and that access to personalised medicine is available to everyone and anyone.
“…we need to ensure that … access to personalised medicine is available to everyone and anyone”
Our third potential asset is one we could use to reduce health injustice, or increase it. Social networks and big data are emerging as important fields of health research. Could we use these networks to target health education to reduce the health-economic divide?
If we can join social network “case finding” with personalised medicine using remote technologies, such as wearable tech and blood spot cards sent to doctors by post, we could imagine an entirely different world of preventative medicine. Social media is already being used by industry to target individuals – we’ve all seen personalised adverts on our computer screens. Can we do it in the NHS for the benefit of people’s health?
So where do we go from here?
Our lifespan is growing, in excess of our health span and the healthcare system we need to solve this issue is not the one we have come to rely on. We need to build translational ageing research, engage older adults in research, and counter the increasing health inequalities with age. Here I’ve outlined three key assets we can use to address these challenges: physical activity, personalised medicine and social networks. The time has come to use these assets to shape the healthcare system of the future. The third era of medicine must, like the first be an era of preventative medicine, but this time with fewer side effects!
World Alzheimer’s Day 2017: Q&A with Dr Claire Steves
Dr Claire Steves is both a geriatrician as well as a gerontologist and is the principal investigator for ageing and frailty at the Department of Twin Research, researching health and fitness in older people. As a geriatrician, Claire specialises in dementia and delirium and focuses on people with complex problems that require specialist approaches to treatment.
September 21st marks World Alzheimer’s Day. We caught up with DTR researcher Dr Claire Steves to find out about early stage Alzheimer’s disease and her research into cognitive decline.
Many people are familiar with Alzheimer’s, but perhaps more so with the advanced stages of the disease. As a geriatrician you see patients in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s – what are the symptoms?
When I see patients for the first time one of the most common things I find is that a relative has noticed they might keep repeating themselves a lot, saying the same thing over and over. It’s recent memory that goes first; perhaps they also can’t remember what they’ve had for dinner or can’t keep track of the TV. In contrast, memory of past events can be very good.
A common test we use is to show images of slightly less common things such as a camel or a rhinoceros. A person with early stage Alzheimer’s wouldn’t be able to name them.
Are there any challenges in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages?
Yes, it can be tricky: one issue is that when someone first goes to their GP with early symptoms they’ve probably been slowly developing Alzheimer’s for years. The real problem is that it can be hard to determine whether they do have Alzheimer’s or whether there’s something else going on. Do they have stress or anxiety, or some other medical condition, or might it be normal decline with age?
We can do detailed tests that look at how someone creates new memories by asking them to remember an item and its location. Joining these two things seems to predict Alzheimer’s early on. We can also use imaging or even take spinal fluid (a lumbar puncture) to look at the amounts of different proteins in the fluid around the brain.
One thing that’s often overlooked is delirium in older people who are have another illness. People with delirium become confused and maybe hallucinate. It can be very distressing for patients, family and carers and can be a real risk for falls or hitting out. We know that people who have delirium are more at risk of cognitive decline. We also know that we can prevent delirium by being careful with how we treat patients in hospital – it’s an unmet need. I follow these patients up when they’re better to see if they might have early stage Alzheimer’s.
Are there any treatments available to people with early stage Alzheimer’s?
The biggest thing that makes a difference is to understand what’s happening and find ways to cope with it in daily life, with help from family members or carers.
There are drugs for early Alzheimer’s called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, which are very helpful in some people. They can increase the time people are independent for, which is really important. Unfortunately they don’t change the overall outcome of the disease and some people can experience side effects, such as minor dreams, hallucinations, or nausea – we always do a trial period before starting longer-term treatment.
Getting a diagnosis is vital in giving people the right treatment. It’s usually older people who get Alzheimer’s and they often have other health issues, so it’s important that everyone is aware there’s a memory issue. Often, someone will have been going to, for example, a heart clinic for years and no one realises they might have dementia – if they’ve not been taking their medications properly their heart disease then gets worse. That’s what my job as a geriatrician is about – thinking about the whole picture.
The biggest thing that makes a difference [to Alzheimer’s patients] is to understand what’s happening and find ways to cope with it in daily life…
What is the prognosis following early diagnosis?
This varies a lot and depends on other health issues a person may have; there’s no one size fits all. Some people can progress very slowly and really improve with drugs and support, whereas others may deteriorate much quicker.
Some research suggests modern drugs might be able to reverse Alzheimer’s. In the next 5-10 years, we’ll probably see more and more research into this; we need to know whether it’s safe.
A lot of your research involves studying twins in the TwinsUK cohort – what are you trying to find out?
Since my PhD I’ve been researching how learning and memory change as we get older – I’m interested in what might predict changes in cognition.
Right now I’m looking at how gut microbes might affect cognition. It’s possible that gut microbes may change the amount of inflammation in the body which could affect the brain and immune cells called microglia. If this happens, it might worsen dementia. This isn’t to say gut microbes might cause dementia on their own, but they could be part of the bigger picture of how it develops and progresses.
[Twins are] a very accessible way for people to understand the age-old dilemma of nature vs nurture.
How does studying twins help?
There are lots of benefits to studying twins. People really identify with why it’s useful to study twins – they’re a unique natural experiment. The public are also fascinated by identical genetics and it’s a very accessible way for people to understand the age-old dilemma of nature vs nurture.
Identical twins are brilliant for looking at the effect of the environment and lifestyle. We often check research results we find in all our twins using the identical twins. Identical twins are also great when we want to test something, like a dietary supplement. We can carry out much smaller scale studies in twins, as there is less genetic diversity.
For our twins, it’s an enjoyable way for them to take part in research as they come in to the department together – it’s a social thing.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found out about cognitive decline from studying twins?
The biggest thing I’ve found is that if you’re physically fitter you have much better cognitive change over time. We looked at changes in the twins over a ten-year period and found that your brain is much less likely to decline if you’re fitter. You may even be able to improve your cognition.
What do you think the long term impact of your research on cognitive ageing will be?
What we’re working towards at the moment is trying to understand what kind of changes people can make to their gut microbes that might improve inflammation and improve cognitive ageing. We have plans to study this, which would be very exciting.
The other thing is that it’s really important to get the message out to the public that keeping physically active is the best way to reduce cognitive ageing, the risk of Alzheimer’s and a whole range of other things. This is a really important message for those people who perhaps aren’t bothered so much by weight, but really care about their brain!
For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, and how to access support, take a look at the Alzheimer’s Society’s website.
Gut bacteria play a role in long-term weight gain
The Department of Twin Research has just published exciting results in the International Journal of Obesity based on the study of over 1600 twins that provides even more proof about the link between our weight and the bacteria that live inside us (microbes). The researchers analysed the different types of bacteria in faecal samples donated by TwinsUK volunteers and dietary information and compared this information against weight change over nine years. They discovered that women who ate high amounts of dietary fibre (found in fruit, vegetables and whole grains) were less likely to gain weight than those who ate little fibre, even if they consumed roughly the same amount of calories. Women who lost weight or had stable weight also had more diverse microbes in their guts. The researchers were able to pinpoint some of the microbes that are different between women who had gained weight and those who had lost weight. Most of these microbes had already been discovered in mice to be involved in better energy metabolism. “The data we published show that the exciting studies in mice about how microbes affect weight gain are also relevant to weight gain in humans.” says Dr Ana Valdes.
“Our study highlights a significant role of microbial diversity on weight gain independently of other factors” says Dr Cristina Menni, first author of the study “they also suggests that addressing microbiome diversity through dietary interventions may be the way forward to improve weight maintenance in the long run. These data are important because they will allow our team, and other scientists as well, to investigate how to influence a person’s gut microbes – using probiotics and fibre – so they are at a lower risk of developing obesity.”
To read an article in The Conversation about this research, please click here.
Genetics plays a significant role in immunity
Nearly three quarters of immune traits are influenced by genes, new research from the Department of Twin Research, King’s College London reveals.
The study, using the data of 497 twins was published in Nature Communications and has contributed to a growing body of evidence that the genetic influence on our immune system is significantly higher than previously thought. Click here for the full King’s College London article.
KCL Big Data Day
The Department of Twin Research was pleased to have been invited to showcase our work at KCL’s ‘Big Data Day’, bringing together King’s researchers who are involved in a wide range of data-focused research, including its societal, political and ethical aspects. DTR students, post-docs and senior lecturers all came together to promote our research and create new collaborations at our DTR information stall and poster. To see our poster please click here.
TWINSUK – THE MOST GENOTYPED AND PHENOTYPED TWIN COHORT IN THE WORLD
Our involvement in KCL big data day enabled us to reflect on nearly quarter of a century of collecting varied and extensive data on over 13,000 research volunteers in order to understand how genetic variations relate to health, disease and ageing. This data collection has led to multiple collaborations with over 800 groups worldwide, resulting in over 600 research papers. Our research includes the collection of thousands of different types of genetic, biochemical and questionnaire-based data as well as data from microbiome studies that have revolutionised our knowledge of how closely our health is related to the bacteria that live in our gut. Such an extensive dataset has resulted in the TwinsUK cohort being the most investigated twin cohort in the world. The scope of its data provides a unique opportunity to investigate the relationship between our health, genes, environment and microbiome in a way, and to an extent that is unprecedented.
BIG DATA CHALLENGE
Congratulations must also go to three members of our team, Marianna Sanna, Stefano Andreozzi and Mark Simcoe who won this year’s “Big Data, Big Ideas” Challenge which took place on Big Data Day. The Challenge was an innovative interactive session designed to bring researchers together for rapid brainstorming to jumpstart exciting interdisciplinary projects. As part of the challenge, Marianna, Stefano and Mark, together with three other researchers in an entirely different field (social sciences and telecommunications) conceived an instrument for the analysis of migrations in developing countries. As a case study, they examined the migration of people from Northern to Southern Nigeria which they undertake due to seasonal weather and difficulties in accessing water and food for their cattle. They then showed that data can be integrated from mobile phone usage, social networks, NGOs, and the genetic profile of the cattle’s dung to build a model of the migration and to help improve the process. They are very happy to have won a bespoke workshop about ‘Engaging for Impact’ hosted by the Science Gallery London.
The Challenge showed how small ideas shared amongst KCL researchers from across the disciplines can have a big impact on health and society.
Acne sufferers’ cells may be protected against ageing
Study finds link between faecal bacteria and body fat
Researchers at the Department of Twin Research, King’s College London have found a new link between the diversity of bacteria in human poo – known as the human faecal microbiome – and levels of abdominal body fat. The research, published 26 September 2016 in Genome Biology, also provides further evidence of possible genetic influences on obesity, through heritable bacteria found in the faecal microbiome.
Increased vitamin C in the diet could help protect against cataracts
Higher dietary intake of vitamin C has been found to have a potentially preventative effect on cataract progression in the first twin study of cataracts to examine to what degree genetic and environmental factors influence their progression with age.
Cataract is a common condition in which the lens of the eye becomes cloudy as a result of oxidation over time. Whilst this is a natural part of ageing for many, for others it is more severe and causes blurred vision, glare and dazzle that cannot be corrected by glasses or contact lenses.
Cataract surgery is the most common operation performed in the UK with more than 300,000 procedures carried out each year.
The study, led by King’s College London and published in the journal Ophthalmology, looked at the progression of cataracts in the eyes of 324 pairs of female twins from the Twins UK registry over 10 years by examining photographs of the participant’s lenses that allowed them to analyse the level of opacity of the lens in detail. Participant intake of vitamin C was also measured using a food questionnaire.
They found that those participants who had a higher intake of vitamin C were associated with a 33 per cent risk reduction of cataract progression and had ‘clearer’ lenses after the 10 years than those who had consumed less vitamin C as part of their diet.
The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and Guide Dogs for the Blind, also found that environmental factors (including diet) influenced cataract more than genetic factors, which only explained a third of the change in lens opacity.
The fluid in the eye that bathes the lens is high in vitamin C, which helps to stop the lens from oxidising and protects it from becoming cloudy. It is thought that increased intake of vitamin C has a protective effect on cataract progression by increasing the vitamin C available in the eye fluid.
Professor Chris Hammond, consultant eye surgeon and lead author of the study from the Division of Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences, said: ‘The findings of this study could have significant impact, particularly for the ageing population globally by suggesting that simple dietary changes such as increased intake of fruit and vegetables as part of a healthier diet could help protect them from cataracts.
‘While we cannot avoid getting older, diabetes and smoking are also risk factors for this type of cataract, and so a healthy balanced diet and lifestyle generally should reduce the risk of needing a cataract operation.’
Kate Yonova-Doing, the study’s first author said: ‘The human body cannot manufacture vitamin C, so we depend on vitamins in the food we eat. We did not find a significantly reduced risk in people who took vitamin tablets, so it seems that a healthy diet is better than supplements.’
Cataract is the leading cause of blindness in the world, affecting approximately 20 million people, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where healthcare is less readily available.
Limitations of the study include that the participants are predominantly of UK-origin and female, reflecting cataract progression between the ages of 60 and 70 years on average, so may not be generalisable.
Also, observational studies like this cannot rule out the impact of other factors relating to a healthy diet that may also have had an effect on the progression of cataracts.
Notes to editors
For further information please contact Hannah Pluthero, Press Officer at King’s College London, on +44 (0)207 848 3238 or email email@example.com
‘Genetic and dietary factors influencing the progression of nuclear cataract’ will be published online in Ophthalmology on Thursday 24 March 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ophtha.2016.01.036
For further information about King’s, please visit the King’s in Brief web pages.
About The Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. We support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine. Our investment portfolio gives us the independence to support such transformative work as the sequencing and understanding of the human genome, research that established front-line drugs for malaria, and Wellcome Collection, our free venue for the incurably curious that explores medicine, life and art. www.wellcome.ac.uk
Keen to be healthier in old age? Tend your inner garden
The “very old” do spark our interest – but is our search for a secret to longevity actually misguided? Wouldn’t you rather live healthier than live longer in poor health? Surely, what we really want to know is how do we live well in old age.
Clearly as scientists we try to illuminate these questions using populations of people not just odd individuals. Many previous attempts have approached this question by looking for differences between young and old people, but this approach is often biased by the many social and cultural developments that happen between generations, including diet changes. Time itself should not be the focus – at least, in part, because time is one thing we are unlikely to be able to stop.
Fitter legs linked to a ‘fitter’ brain
Researchers at King’s College London have found that muscle fitness as measured by power in the legs is strongly associated with an improved rate of ageing in the brain.
The findings, published in Gerontology, suggest that simple interventions, such as increased levels of walking, targeted to improve leg power in the long term may have an impact on healthy cognitive ageing. The research was funded jointly by the NIHR and the Wellcome Trust.
More than 11 moles on your arm could indicate higher risk of melanoma
Researchers at King’s College London have investigated a new method that could be used by GPs to quickly determine the number of moles on the entire body by counting the number found on a smaller ‘proxy’ body area, such as an arm.
Naevus (mole) count is one of the most important markers of risk for skin cancer despite only 20 to 40 per cent of melanoma arising from pre-existing moles. The risk is thought to increase by two to four per cent per additional mole on the body, but counting the total number on the entire body can be time consuming in a primary care setting.
Research shows high protein foods boost cardiovascular health
Our latest research in collaboration with the University of East Anglia shows that a diet high in proteins is as beneficial as exercise for our cardiovascular health. The researchers analysed diet and clinical measures from 2000 of our twins and found evidence that showed that high levels of aminoacids had a positive effect on blood pressure and arterial stiffness.
TwinsUK Leads The Way In Alzheimer’s Prevention Research
Dr Claire Steves, senior lecturer at the Department of Twin Research, King’s College London, recently co-authored a seminal paper in the Journal Translational Psychiatry that describes the identification of a protein in blood that could potentially lead to early identification and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. This important breakthrough was reported world-wide and was covered in major British papers such as the Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail.
The research used data from over 100 sets of healthy twins. The researchers looked at over 1000 proteins in the blood, and found decreasing amounts of one protein in particular, called MAPKAP5, over a ten year time was associated with a decline in cognitive ability which was independent of age and genetics.
There are no current cost effective ways to identify people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Identifying blood markers such as MAPKAPK5, which may indicate a person’s future risk of Alzheimer’s disease, could contribute towards the better design of prevention trials.
Dr Steven Kiddle, co-author from the Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre, also at KCL, said: “Although we are still searching for an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, what we do know is that prevention of the disease is likely to be more effective than trying to reverse it.
“The next step will be to replicate our finding in an independent study, and to confirm whether or not it is specific for Alzheimer’s disease, as this could lead to the development of a reliable blood test which would help clinicians identify suitable people for prevention trials.”
Dr Claire Steves said “We’re optimistic that our research has the potential to benefit the lives of those who don’t currently have symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but are at risk of developing the disease.”
Dr Steves added, “We are hugely indebted to the twins for giving us their time and effort with these cognitive tests. We are continuing to follow-up both memory symptoms and cognitive testing in TwinsUK, which will be important in confirming and translating the science into benefits for older adults.”
The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, the National Institute of Health Research Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health and the Wellcome Trust.
DTR researcher wins prestigious award for work on back pain
Congratulations to the DTR team led by Dr Frances Williams which has been selected as the winner of The International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine (ISSLS) prize in Clinical Studies for 2015. The award is the most prestigious in the field for research into low back pain arising from the spine and associated structures. The photograph below shows Dr Frances Williams and some of the co-authors receiving the award and prize of $15,000 from the Björn Rydevik of ISSLS.
This work is extremely important because back pain is so common. One in three of us will get back pain in any given year, mostly pain of the lower back. Back pain can affect people’s mood, daily activities and work life and sleep patterns and may lead to disability and job loss. Research into the understanding of the cause of back pain and what make some people susceptible could help doctors treat back pain as early as possible in its course thus preventing further pain and disability.
The specific research which won the prize used twin data on 850 twins from questionnaires and twin visits dating back to 1996 and showed for the first time that specific changes in the vertebral endplate (as captured on spine MRI) are related to self-reported episodes of severe and disabling low back pain. The work will lead to a greater understanding of the mechanisms of spine degeneration and their relationship with episodes of low back pain.
Why is my hangover so bad?
Tim Spector talks to the Guardian about how drinking alcohol affects our microbial population and in return the intensity of hangovers. Who among us have not suffered the awful effects of a hangover at least once?. Research shows that drinking in excess causes our gut microbes to release toxins and increase the alcohol loving microbes which in return drive us to want to drink more. A solution is at hand and can be found in our diet, in particular high consumption of fibre which ameliorates the effects of drinking and the intensity of hangovers. So next time that you are going out for a drink, do not forget to add high fibre foods to your menu and a probiotic.
Gut microbes important for dietary health
Tim Spector gave an interview to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, where he discussed the latest microbiome research and advised listeners on how to improve their microbiome population and what to eat for better health. The whole interview is now available online at the following link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02r42hv
Your gut bacteria don’t like junk food – even if you do
Tim Spector, longstanding contributor to the science media outlet “The Conversation”, explains how junk food negatively affects the diversity of our gut microbiome, essential for our wellbeing. For the sake of his latest research published in his book The Diet Myth, Tim and his son put themselves through different diets to observe its effects on our microbial friends, so we can make better choices for our long term health.
Dr Mario Falchi & team relocate to the Department of Twin Research
We are very excited to welcome Dr Mario Falchi and his team, who have relocated to the Department of Twin Research (DTR) from Imperial College London. Mario originally worked at the DTR as a senior statistical geneticist before moving to Imperial College and has now returned with his own group. During his time at Imperial College he was also working on twin data, collaborating with us on numerous papers and projects. One of our most exciting collaborations together during this time using data on height, weight and biochemical markers from TwinsUK visits, led to the discovery that obesity in some people is related to the number of copies of a gene coding for a carb-digesting enzyme. This enzyme breaks down starch to sugar in our mouth and is called ‘salivary amylase’. The findings, published in Nature Genetics and widely reported by the media, showed for the first time a link between obesity and carbohydrate digestion, thus suggesting that personalised dietary advice based on an individual’s DNA may be a way forward in the fight against obesity.
Mario has a keen interest in the study of the basic physiological processes whose disruption ultimately lead to diseases, and this is the main reason he returned to the DTR. In his own words – “Twin data from TwinsUK is a very valuable resource for my research, as the twins do not join the registry due to their medical history and are therefore representative of the general UK population. This allows computational biologists such as myself access to a wealth of valuable information to better understand both human health and disease. It is also particularly important that so many of the twins return to the DTR for multiple visits, which is helping science to comprehend how our physiology evolves over time’.
Together with his group, he will be using genetic, clinical and biochemical data from twins to discover new insights into human physiology, including metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes, renal diseases, ageing, and cancer. They will use computational approaches to combine information to obtain a “systemic view” of how our body works and to identify those parts of the system that are likely to change in the disease state. This will allow the identification of biomarkers for early detection of diseases and potential drug targets.
With so many great ideas and so much experience, we are looking forward to Mario and his team’s future research success and scientific findings, and would like to wish them a hearty welcome.
From Left to Right: Marianna Sanna, Irina Glotova, Alessia Visconti, Mario Falchi, Simone Ribero
Chemical attraction: why mosquitos zone in on some people, but not others
Tim Spector discusses the latest research showing a genetic link to why mosquitos bite some people and not others and goes one step further by stating that the microbes which live in our bodies have an important role to play.
Thank you to our twins who valiantly contributed to this study.
Do our genes tell us how to vote?
We recently performed a poll of voting preferences among our twins aiming to explore how much nature and nurture influence our party political allegiances and potential voting preferences. We had an excellent response rate and the results of the study have been published by the Sunday Times and The Conversation UK, an independent source of news and views sourced from the academic and research community. It seems that our genes do have a say when it comes to political party allegiances.
CLICK HERE to read more….
London Microbiome Meeting 2015 (LMM2015)
Hosted by the Department of Twin Research and held annually, this is an event aiming to create a discussion forum to share the latest and most innovative research within the microbiome field. The meeting is taking place at St Thomas’ Hospital on 28th May 2015 from 16:00 to 19:00. We have a number of exciting talks and we encourage all the researchers and clinicians to join us in developing a London microbiome research network.
Our first 2014 meeting was a success and we hope that this year’s 2015 meeting will be even bigger!
For further information and registration please click here http://londonmicrobiome.org/index.html
We would like to thank Yakult for sponsoring this event.
On target! 3000 BRC twin visits in 3 years!
On March 24th we celebrated our 3000th twin visit in the state-of-the-art government-funded Clinical Research Facility in the Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London. The BRC is dedicated to ‘translating scientific discoveries into improvements in treatment which will benefit patients at the earliest opportunity’. The current research programme with volunteers from the TwinsUK registry aims to understand better how our genes interact with the environment resulting in disease, and to develop new drugs and treatments. We are making excellent progress to this end, having met our target of 1000 twins a year for 3 years. We are especially pleased to have increased recruitment of people of a wide range of ethnicities, and especially from the boroughs local to Guys and St Thomas’, and look forward to recruiting another 2000 twins over the next two years.
Professor Tim Spector (Director of the Department of Twin Research) and Professor Graham Lord (Director of the BRC) presented our milestone twins, Wendy and Gaye, with flowers and enjoyed talking with them. The twins also celebrated over lunch with the clinical research team. Thank you to all the 3000 twins who have had a TwinsUK/ BRC visit since March 2012 and have helped make our research programme such a success.
To read more about the BRC please click here.
Hallenga twins present latest TwinsUK research into moles
Our wonderful twins Maren and Kris Hallenga spent their Thursday morning filming at the Department of Twin Research for a German Television programme to present our latest research results. Together with Tim Spector and Dr Veronique Bataille, researchers at TwinsUK, they helped us to illustrate that having lots of moles may slow down your ageing process with younger looking skin and also protect you against bone loss with age and fractures. Again, we would like to remind you that if you have moles changing in size, shape and colour, please get your doctor to check them. Keep counting!
A twin visit with the Mac Twins
Alana and Lisa Macfarlane, presenters, DJs and mirror twins recently joined the biggest cohort of twins in the UK, TwinsUK, and visited our department on Friday 14th November to take part in their first ever twin visit. They were the subject of a number of tests whose results will now join a database with data from thousands of other twins. This huge resource of information will be used for research into ageing.
After the visit which took two and a half hours, we sat down with both twins to talk about their experience and tell us why joining TwinsUK is an important milestone for them.
How did you find your twin visit and was what you expected?
The visit was great fun. Not scary or medical, so this was a relief. We found it easy and we had plenty of opportunities for chatting and talking about the results. The tests were all fun and not at all scary. It was fascinating how our competitiveness streak kicked in and we were comparing results all the time.
When did you first become aware of the importance of twins in research?
Uhmm about two months ago. Actually we were aware all our lives that different things happened to us such as illness but we were both the constant. For example, we could not stop thinking why one of us got an illness and the other one not. We are asked what is similar among us all the time but we were interested more in our differences, for example one of us is right handed and the other one left handed.
What would you say to twins who are unsure about joining TwinsUK?
Say to yourself Why not? You will be benefiting science and the world, and will also get a medical check-up for free! If you think that the visit is like Willi Wonka and the TV room surrounded by people in white coats, you could not be more mistaken.
Do you have any interesting facts/stories about yourselves?
Lisa was born seven minutes past the hour and me (Alana) seven minutes to the hour. We always joke that Lisa got less attention as my father was so taken with me at the time of birth that did not have the time to wait for her.
Also, people always ask us if we are telepathic. I tell them that when I broke my arm, Lisa would complain of pain too… but it was not telepathy, just a way to get attention! Yes, I did sneakily try and deface her arm cast whilst she was asleep.
Being identical, have you found this to be an advantage or a disadvantage?
Both. In our field of work it has opened some doors but also closed others, mainly as a result of the precedents sent by other twins such as the Cheeky girls or Jedward. We need to fight to show that we are different from them.
How do you find other peoples fascination with you being identical twins?
We are aware that twins are the unicorns in the room and people tend to stare. We have had this all our lives and we found it normal, we thought that everyone stared at each other. Lisa is a great starer and looks back a lot. Overall we are so much in our cloud that we do not notice anymore.
We are very fascinated to be identical twins that dress the same as this is not something that we have done.
Interviewed by Kirsten and Victoria
TwinsUK wishes to thank Alana and Lisa for their time and generosity. All our twins are invaluable for us and the advancement of science.
Body weight heavily influenced by microbes in the gut, finds twin study
Our genetic makeup influences whether we are fat or thin by shaping which types of microbes thrive in our body, according to a study by researchers at King’s College London and Cornell University.
By studying pairs of twins at King’s Department of Twin Research, researchers identified a specific, little known bacterial family that is highly heritable and more common in individuals with low body weight. This microbe also protected against weight gain when transplanted into mice.
The results, published today in the journal Cell, could pave the way for personalised probiotic therapies that are optimised to reduce the risk of obesity-related diseases based on an individual’s genetic make-up.
Previous research has linked both genetic variation and the composition of gut microbes to metabolic disease and obesity. Despite these shared effects, the relationship between human genetic variation and the diversity of gut microbes was presumed to be negligible.
In the study, funded by National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers sequenced the genes of microbes found in more than 1,000 fecal samples from 416 pairs of twins. The abundances of specific types of microbes were found to be more similar in identical twins, who share 100 per cent of their genes, than in non-identical twins, who share on average only half of the genes that vary between people. These findings demonstrate that genes influence the composition of gut microbes.
The type of bacteria whose abundance was most heavily influenced by host genetics was a recently identified family called ‘Christensenellaceae’. Members of this health-promoting bacterial family were more abundant in individuals with a low body weight than in obese individuals. Moreover, mice that were treated with this microbe gained less weight than untreated mice, suggesting that increasing the amounts of this microbe may help to prevent or reduce obesity.
Professor Tim Spector, Head of the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King’s, said: ‘Our findings show that specific groups of microbes living in our guts could be protective against obesity – and that their abundance is influenced by our genes. The human microbiome represents an exciting new target for dietary changes and treatments aimed at combating obesity.
‘Twins have been incredibly valuable in uncovering these links – but we now want to promote the use of microbiome testing more widely in the UK through the British Gut Project. This is a crowd-sourcing experiment that allows anyone with an interest in their diet and health to have their personal microbes tested genetically using a simple postal kit and a small donation via our website (www.britishgut.org). We want thousands to join up so we can continue to make major discoveries about the links between our gut and our health.’
Ruth Ley, Associate Professor at Cornell University in the United States, said: ‘Up until now, variation in the abundances of gut microbes has been explained by diet, the environment, lifestyle, and health. This is the first study to firmly establish that certain types of gut microbes are heritable—that their variation across a population is in part due to host genotype variation, not just environmental influences. These results will also help us find new predictors of disease and aid prevention’
For further information please contact Jack Stonebridge, Press Officer at King’s College London, on 0207 848 3238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to editors:
The study was also supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) BioResource Clinical Research Facility and Biomedical Research Centre based at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.
About King’s College London (www.kcl.ac.uk)
King’s College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2014/15 QS World University Rankings) and the fourth oldest in England. It is The Sunday Times ‘Best University for Graduate Employment 2012/13′. King’s has nearly 26,000 students (of whom more than 10,600 are graduate students) from some 140 countries worldwide, and more than 7,000 staff. The College is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.
King’s has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £590 million.
King’s has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.
King’s College London and Guy’s and St Thomas’, King’s College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King’s Health Partners. King’s Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world’s leading research-led universities and three of London’s most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: www.kingshealthpartners.org.
British Gut (www.britishgut.org)
British Gut is the UK’s largest open-source science project to understand the microbial diversity of the human gut. Launched in October 2014, it is a collaboration between the Department of Twin Research at King’s College London and American Gut. For more information visit the website: www.britishgut.org
DTR on show at the Evening Standard 1000 Party
The Department of Twin Research (DTR), King’s College London were delighted to have been asked to take part in the 2014 Evening Standard Power 1000 party on October 16th, with five sets of identical twins engaged in interactive fun science with influential party-goers.
The party was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust (also a sponsor of DTR research projects), the Gates Foundation and the Francis Crick Institute. The party launched the Evening Standard’s annual list of ‘most influential Londoners’ who make London one of the world’s creative and cultural centres, drawn from all sectors and walks of London life – from finance, science, technology, media and politics. The party was held in the grounds of the Francis Crick Institute near St Pancras Station which will be a powerhouse of medical research and Europe’s biggest biomedical facility.
To honour the opening of this landmark biomedical facility, the 2014 power 1000 party focused on London’s contribution to science, medicine and global humanitarism. Renowned scientist Professor Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time was star guest at the event and confirmed that “Scientific research is a global co-operation but London is a leading centre.” Other influential Londoners included Chancellor George Osborne (who was voted most influential Londoner of 2014), Mayor Boris Johnson and Nobel Prize-winning scientists Sir Paul Nurse (director of the Crick Institute) who won the Nobel prize for his role in discovering the proteins that control cell division and Professor John O’Keefe who won the Nobel prize for the discovery of cells in the brain that act as our “internal GPS”. In addition, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates addressed the audience by video.
The DTR under the directorship of Professor Tim Spector was invited by the Francis Crick Institute to take part in the evening in order to help showcase important and successful Wellcome-funded genetic and ageing projects and to help demonstrate the power of twin research and how these projects have helped scientific and medical advancement, especially in the emerging field of epigenetics. The DTR had previously worked with the Francis Crick Institute at a number of public engagement events, inspiring the public about the importance of biomedical research, and were delighted to have been offered the chance to take part in the “1000 party”.
As party-goers walked into the event, they were met by Professor Spector’s dulcet tones as snippets of epigenetics ‘conversation’ drafted through the speakers whilst acrobatic performers formed identical and then different movements in “Switch”- a new aerial commission inspired by epigenetics, supported by the Wellcome Trust and created by Metta Theatre.
The party-goers were also treated to the beautiful sound of two Paraguayan harps, as Rosemary and Margaret played in perfect harmony and symmetry, being identical mirror twins.
Throughout the evening identical twins, who are members of TwinsUK and have taken part in health-related research, interacted with party-goers through the use of clever and engaging science activities inspired by real-time research, resulting in interesting conversations about the value and progress of biomedical and genetic research. For example, party-goers were asked to flex their muscles, gripping on to our grip-strength machine whilst competing against each other. They were very surprised, and a little disconcerted to learn that grip strength is 50% heritable! Likewise their efforts on a Pilates wobble cushion to demonstrate the role balance plays in ageing were very impressive – especially after a drink or two. Unfortunately alcohol did not dull the cold of our ice-pain test, which demonstrated that pain is definitely NOT all in the mind and has a strong genetic basis. Similar tests conducted at the DTR have revealed new pathways associated with pain. Party goers were also surprised by frank conversations with identical twin volunteers about longevity where they discovered that, all things being equal, an identical twin who smokes may live ten years less than the twin who doesn’t smoke.
The DTR is very grateful to the twin volunteers – Margaret, Rose, Hugo, Ross, Daniel, Raphael, Jo, Diane, Wendy, and Katie – who did a fabulous job entertaining and talking to the guests; to Simon Watt , a freelance Science communicator who helped develop some of the science activities, and to Sarah Punshon who oversaw our involvement in the evening on behalf of the Wellcome Trust, and who also helped us create and perfect our science activities. Finally we are enormously grateful to the Wellcome Trust and the Francis Crick Institute for giving us the opportunity to showcase our research at such a fun and inspiring evening.
by Dr Juliette Harris, Department of Twin Research
Department of Twin Research launches British Gut
British Gut – an innovative UK open-source science project to understand the microbial diversity of the human gut – is launched today by the Department of Twin Research at King’s College London, in collaboration with American Gut.
This cutting edge science project will give people in the UK and across Europe the opportunity to be science makers and learn more about the microbes which live in their gut, skin and mouth. They will also find out how their microbes are affected by their own diet and lifestyle.
Research has shown that the 100 trillion bacteria living naturally in the gut play an important role in human health and disease. Each individual’s bacteria are unique to him or her, and small changes in this finely balanced community can influence susceptibility to illnesses such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, cancer, heart disease and obesity.
British Gut aims to create a large resource of samples and data available to scientists. Volunteers are invited to donate to the project, after which they will receive a swab kit to collect a sample of their gut microbes to be sent to King’s. British Gut will then sequence the genetic sample, provide participants with a list of the bacteria present in their gut, and map how it compares to the rest of the population sampled.
The Department of Twin Research at King’s is home to TwinsUK, the biggest UK adult twin registry with 12,000 twins and one of the leading UK Microbiome centres, which has already identified significant differences in the types of microbes people have in their gut. Research at Twins UK has also shown that both identical and non-identical twins only share around 50 per cent of bacterial groups. Future studies now need to identify their role and how researchers can influence bacteria to improve our health and general wellbeing.
Professor Tim Spector, Head of the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King’s and lead investigator for British Gut, said: Many differences between people may be genetic. ‘Participants in American Gut and now British Gut can test how different diets shape their bodies. This is an exciting time to map our own personalised microbes – which appear to be key for health and longevity, but also for many common diseases. This is a great opportunity for British citizen scientists to find out about their own bodies and diets – whilst also benefiting science.’
A recent pilot study led by British Gut showed that diets can change gut microbial diversity, even within a few days. Dietary interventions included a cheese and yogurt-heavy diet, dietary cleanses using only plant foods, and fasting. The dietary interventions, especially the more dramatic cleanses and fasts, did induce changes, but not in the same way in different individuals. Professor Rob Knight, co-founder of American Gut, said: ‘Unlike our human genomes, which are all more than 99 per cent the same, our microbiomes are mostly very different from one another. These microbial differences may explain why our bodies respond differently to different diets, but may ultimately help us predict which diets will work for which people.’
Interestingly, some people experienced more dramatic changes than others. ‘These results show that the effect of a dietary intervention – and the ability to detect an effect against background variation – varies from person to person,’ said Dr Luke Thompson, also of American Gut.
The data are freely available to access online. For further information visit the British Gut website: http://www.britishgut.co.uk/
TwinsUK at National Twin Day UK
TwinsUK researchers, Kirsten Ward and Sarah Metrustry talked about the work of carried out by TwinsUK at the National Twin Day UK 2014 at Wicksteed Park on Saturday 13th September. The event was successfully organised by the Twins Gift Company and brought twins of all ages and their families together for a day of fun and activities, and a chance to learn about the wonderful contribution twin research has made to health research.
Kirsten and Sarah supported by Lynn Cherkas presented a general overview on the main areas of our research (genomic, epigenomic, metabolomic and microbiome) and explained how twins can contribute to science and what a twin research visit entails. TwinsUK also exhibited a stand during the day and the researchers were available to answer questions throughout the day.
The event and our presentations were very well received with lots of twins and parents asking the Twins Gift Company and us to repeat this event next year.
Thank you to the Twins Gift Company for inviting TwinsUK to be part of such a great day!
CLICK HERE to visit the Twins Gift Company website.
Welcome back Hugo and Ross
TwinsUK welcomes back Hugo and Ross after their Greenland expedition.
Their trek was inspired by the work done by Spinal Research and the polar expeditions of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Ross used the equipment and provisions available during Shackleton’s expedition and Hugo used everything a modern day explorer would use.
In order to assess how exposure to extreme environments affected their bodies and overall health the twins attended a research visit on 06 June 2014. The team interviewed the twins and collected samples. A summary of the interview is available HERE.
DTR “Twin Experience” Event at the Science Museum
The Department of Twin Research presented their work at the Science Museum’s Late Bio-Revolution-themed event on Wednesday 26th February. These events take place every month and attract huge crowds drawn by the opportunity to engage in different science programmes in a fun and enlightening way. Please carry on reading if you want to find out more about the event.
A record-breaking 6,900 members of the public people came to the event on the 26th February to meet scientists from the Crick’s partner organizations, including King’s College London. Not only did we present our twin research at this event, but members of the public also had the chance to photograph developing zebra fish on a smartphone, create a DNA cocktail and knot a blood vessel.
The DTR was delighted to have been chosen to present at the Science Museum ‘Late’ event as there was a lot of competition for this prestigious opportunity. We wanted to find the best way to explain how valuable twins are to medical and scientific research. Through clinical and behavioural information that we collect during clinical visits and questionnaires, we have been able to discover the genetic and environmental influences on a wide range of common traits such as osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and asthma as well as traits such as personality, pain and sexual dysfunction.
At the ‘Late’ event, we wanted the public to experience in just a few minutes what it is like to be a twin taking part in our research and how just a few simple tests can give us a wealth of information. We presented four different tests which teach us about four different physical / mental functions. These tests are designed to investigate how and why we perceive pain (using a cold pain test – a hand is placed in ice for as long as the volunteer can bear it), as well as measuring frailty (through a grip strength test) and cognition (through a puzzle competition) which are predictors of ageing. We also explored different levels of communication.
Hundreds of people took part in the tests, and talked to our scientists about our work and its impact on scientific knowledge. The public especially enjoyed taking part in the cold pain challenge – perhaps fuelled by their extra tolerance due to their alcohol intake – queuing for up to half a hour to take part. A large number of twins who came to the event joined our registry after realising the benefits to contributing to research. For us it was also a wonderful and rare opportunity to engage and inspire members of the public about the importance of our research. We really appreciated the support of the Crick and Science Museum team who provided us with a wonderful space and help in the run up to the event and on the day itself.
In addition to giving the public the chance to take part in the tests, we also presented a photographic exhibition of members of TwinsUK taken at the 2013 twin party by Iringo Demeter. The photos capture beautifully the joys of twinship and the special bond between twins. Prof Spector also had the rare opportunity to interview Ann Jeremiah and Judy Tabbott, members of TwinsUK, who took part in the Minnesota Study of the personalities and life choices of identical twins ‘Reared Apart’.
A special thank you to the twins who came and helped on the night, chatting with the public about the importance of research and their twinship and encouraging them to take part in the tests, to Dan and Scott Shilum of VisualMedia www.vismedia.co.uk for videoing and photographing the event, and to the staff at the Department of Twin Research for making the research so much fun.
By Juliette Harris & Victoria Vazquez (TwinsUK)
Polar Trek – Identical Twins
In May 2014, identical twins, Hugo and Ross Turner went trekking across the Greenland polar ice cap to raise money for Spinal Research. This trek was inspired by the work done by Spinal Research and the polar expeditions of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Ross used the equipment and provisions available during Shackleton’s expedition and Hugo used everything a modern day explorer would use.
As a spin off from our daily work, we are also working with Hugo and Ross. They have visited us for a total of 3 clinical visits in the run up to and completion of their expedition. We have seen them prior to their training began, in the middle of the training and prior to the start of their expedition and they also visited us after their expedition finished.
As Hugo and Ross are identical twins and share 100% of their DNA, any differences we see between their results at the end will be due to the different environmental exposures that have had during their expedition.
Whether we will see that Ross has suffered more by using the equipment and provisions from Shackleton’s era in 1914 than Hugo will from using modern day equipment and provisions remains to be seen, but either way, we are very excited to be able to take part in this unique and ultimate study of genes versus environment.
Before they left on their expedition, they joined the Department Of Geography at King’s College London for an interview to talk about the expedition. CLICK HERE for more information and to see the interview.
International Congress on Twin Studies 2014
The 15th Congress of the International Society for Twin Studies (ISTS) will be held in Budapest, Hungary, from Sunday 16 November till Wednesday 19 November, 2014. This will be held in conjunction with the 3rd World Congress on Twin Pregnancy.
It will be a high profile programme, appealing to anyone interested in the field of research of multiple pregnancies, which comprises a broad spectrum of medical specialties interested to study twins as an evolutionary and epigenetic model and to understand the genesis of many pathologies, specially neurological and oncological.
CLICK HERE to find more information and details for registration.
What twins think about the Carb-digesting Gene
“Carb- digesting obesity gene discovered!” screamed a recent media headline. It was in fact referring to a major breakthrough into the cause of obesity discovered here at the Department of Twin Research together with collaborators at Imperial College and Lille in France. Together, we found that obesity is related to the number of copies that people have of a gene coding for a carb-digesting enzyme called amylase. The findings, published in Nature Genetics , show for the first time that how well we digest carbs varies widely between us due to our genes and suggests that personalised dietary advice based on an individual’s genetic blueprint may be the way forward in the fight against obesity.
Professor Spector invited three pairs of twin volunteers who took part in the study to the department for a chat so that he could find out what they thought of these results. The twins were all fraternal (non identical), sharing 50% of their genes but sharing the same upbringing and home environment for their first 18 years. They were particularly interested in our results as each pair had a weight difference of at least 2 stone between them. Please read on to read Professor Spector’s account of their visit to the Department….
Frances and Linda, Michelle and Georgette, Margaret and Nora all jumped at the chance to talk to me about what the findings meant to them, not only as twins, but as research volunteers as well. They come from different backgrounds and parts of the UK – but their stories are quite similar. Their weight differences were mostly present from infancy – with one describing themselves as the ’tubby twin’, and the other the ‘skinny twin’. None of them could think of a reason why they had different weights from infancy. They all agreed that as kids their Mums’ had given them the exact same foods and portions – and one twin had just put on the pounds and the other hadn’t. None of them had any major illnesses, food allergies, preferences or medications to explain this.
The weight gaining twins all reported immense frustration that their twin could eat the same without any effects on their weight. In Linda’s words “I just had to look at food to put on weight”. Surprisingly, this difference in adult weight could have been even greater still, as the heavier twin tended to exercise more than the lighter twin, in order to try and lose weight.
The twins were all fascinated and excited by the findings of this research and agreed that it gave them another perspective from which to look at their weight differences. They did not reject the effects their diet and environment had on their weight completely, but they all agreed that a genetic difference such as our latest discovery could go a long way to explain their weight differences. The twins remarked that what their children and husbands ate affected their weight in terms of having fussy or big eaters or vegetarians in the family.
The twins were asked whether they would take a genetic test, if it became available on the NHS, to find out whether they were predisposed to putting on weight. All of them agreed that it would be generally useful, although Margaret wasn’t so sure. Frances thought that the twins with the smaller copy numbers (with greater risk of putting on weight) could feel “fed up and frustrated” by this genetic lottery. She thought the individual could use it as an excuse not to make any effort to lose weight and blame it on their genes. Michelle disagreed, “knowledge is always worthwhile” to which her sister Georgette added that “genes can be a reason but not an excuse”. The group agreed that the genetic information could have the positive effect of helping them to focus on adopting a healthier diet and therefore achieve a bigger weight loss. Michelle and Georgette explained how, in their case, the twin that had less of a weight problem when young ended up gaining more weight than her sister as she never felt the need to control her food intake. They thought that this suggests that these genetic tests should only be given to individuals with a weight problem; otherwise a negative test could provide a false feeling of security. Michelle and Georgette’s story was a nice illustration of how we do not need to be slaves to our genes but we can, by our actions, reverse the natural tendencies of our bodies.
It was generally thought by both the twins and the researchers that personalised genetic testing for weight could be very helpful if it was clinically shown that avoiding or reducing particular food types helped to improve metabolism and weight.
Current research also shows that our gut bacteria can affect our tendency to gain weight and I explained how I thought it may be influenced by this ’carb-digesting gene’. I posed some delicate questions about whether they would be prepared to receive a faecal transplant from their healthier twin, if it was found that it could improve their metabolism through receiving a ‘healthier population of bacteria’. Two out of three pairs said they would consider it, and the third said only if she had some more major health problems.
As we wrapped up – I offered everyone some biscuits or fruit before they left. I was the only one to have a biscuit and a couple took the bananas – which I (annoyingly) explained was a genetically modified sterile fruit with more sugar in them than the biscuits!
It seems everyone these days is interested in what we should eat. Hopefully using our ever-useful TwinsUK registry, we can find more gene variants that determine how we metabolise a whole variety of foods that determine our individual weights. Who knows, the next gene we discover could determine whether we can stay slim while eating six bananas daily and a carb only diet!……
CLICK HERE for a press release by King’s College London
Boston Hall of Human Life
Tim Spector gives a lecture on how we can change our genes at the official launch of the Museum of Science, Boston Hall of Human Life which aims to revolutionize how people understand their own biology and manage their health.
You can watch the video here….
Salon London Transmission Prize 2013
Professor Spector has been nominated to the Salon London Transmission Prize 2013. This prize aims to celebrate those personalities from the world of art, science and psychology that have exceeded at disseminating new and innovative ideas in an engaging manner.
Salon London’s Transmission Prize recognizes the value of ideas and the work that speakers do to get them to an audience.
More info can be found HERE.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, Tim Spector combines his scientific knowledge and research to answer this question, and many more, in his new book.
Tim Spector argues that we are not just skin and bones controlled by genes but minds and bodies made of plastic, and this plastic is dynamic, slowly changing shape and evolving, and nothing is completely genetically hard-wired or pre-ordained.
Click Here to listen to a radio broadcast Tim made whilst on a recent visit to Australia.
Barcelona Triathlon 2013
Congratulations to Professor Tim Spector for completing the Barcelona Triathlon – a great achievement, and for fundraising for the Chronic Disease Research Foundation which was set up to look at new ways of exploring the genetics of diseases associated with ageing. The CDRF generously supports a number of the research projects at the Department of Twin Research.
On 6th October 2013, Professor Spector took part in the Barcelona Triathlon and successfully completed an impressive 20K bike ride, then a 5K run followed by a 750 metre swim! Please support his efforts and our research by donating to the CDRF at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/TwinsUKTriathlon
(please see below for ways to sponsor by cheque).
The CDRF is raising money on our behalf to go towards a much needed new DEXA machine (which measures bone density) so that we can further our important work in early detection of osteoporosis, obesity and healthy ageing. Osteoporosis is a growing healthcare crisis affecting millions of women and men worldwide. The healthcare costs associated with osteoporosis are staggering. Whilst porous bones and fractures may not be visible from the outside, the effects can be life threatening and often people do not know that they have osteoporosis until it’s too late. Early detection by having a DEXA bone density scan and early treatment can make a huge difference to a person’s future well-being.
Raising enough money to purchase a state of the art new bone density scanning machine will not only provide the DTR with high definition digital quality images useful for research, but will also measure whole body distribution of fat. This information can be translated into easily interpreted clinical reports that can be used by the NHS for weight management and counselling. We are looking forward to being able to share the benefits of this DEXA machine and the reports with our volunteers.
You can also make a donation in honour of Prof Spector’s efforts by making cheques payable to the “Chronic Disease Research Foundation”. Please attach a note to the cheque specifying “TwinsUK DEXA Machine – triathlon” and post to Christel Barnetson Department of Twin Research, St Thomas’ Hospital, 3rd Floor, South Wing, Block D, Westminster Bridge Road, LONDON, SE1 7EH
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT
The science of epigenetics.
As well as discussing the badger cull in the UK and geo-engineering, this show reports from the British Science Festival in Newcastle where the inaugural Huxley debate took place. Alok Jha interviews the protagonists, Prof Gambling Tim Spector and Prof George Davey Smyth, who debate the emerging study of epigenetics – changes in gene expression during one generation that may be inherited by the next. Has the whole field been overblown?
You can listen to the show by clicking here. Listen from the 24th minute onwards for the debate.
The Debate (Institute of Art and Ideas)
Conflict rages between those who believe that gender is socially constructed and those who argue that it is biologically determined. But now geneticists propose that we can change our sexual characteristics through lifestyle choices. Is this misguided hype, or the promise of a brave new world?
Biologist and author of Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes Tim Spector, Darwinist philosopher Helena Cronin and New Humanist’s Caspar Melville assess the science of sexuality.
See the video below for an interesting discussion…..
TwinsUK on BBC Horizon
TwinsUK on BBC Horizon
The Horizon programme on BBC TWO ran a feature called “The Truth About Personality” on the 10th July 2013.
This programme in which Michael Mosley explored the latest science about how our personalities are created and whether they can be changed included a section on the Department of Twin Research.
Don”t worry if you missed it. You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer. More information can be found here.
TwinsUK part of the NIHR BioResource
TwinsUK has been offered a great opportunity to be integrated into the BioResource. This is a government initiative funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).www.atoledo.comThe NIHR BioResource brings together the efforts of several excellent Biomedical Research Centres across the UK to generate a register of thousands of volunteers, both with and without health problems, who are willing to be approached to participate in research studies investigating the links between genes, the environment, health and disease.
To find out more you can view the video here.
21st anniversary Video
Twin brothers Scott and Dan Shillum, who run Visual Media, attended our TwinsUK twin party to celebrate our 21st anniversary. We hope you enjoy viewing a short video they made of the day.
You can view the video here…..
TwinsUK on the BBC
The One Show on the BBC ran a feature on the Department of Twin Research on 17th June 2013.
This programme was broadcast at 7:00pm on BBC 1.
They featured the TwinsUK 21st Anniversary Party which was held at St. Thomas” Hospital on 8th June 2013.
Don”t worry if you missed it. You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer.
Twin research comes of age
Tim Spector, Director of TwinsUK and some of our twins took part in a photo call today to celebrate the 21 year anniversary of TwinsUK.
The Department of Twin Research at King’s College London, based at St Thomas’ Hospital, celebrates 21 years of genetic research this week, highlighting key achievements and looking to the future of genetic research. The Department will celebrate this milestone with an event at St Thomas’ Hospital in London this weekend, where hundreds of twins will take part in scientific experiments for research into pain, short-sightedness, hearing loss, skin ageing and telepathy.
Thank you to the many thousands of our twins that have helped us with the research over the years.
For further information click here.
Bursaries for Masters programmes
The KCL Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine is now offering bursaries for Masters programmes.
Students can choose twin-related topics for their coursework.
For further details please go to the “Taught Courses” part of the “Learning & Training” section of this website.
Identical Twins and DNA
With the recent case of the French identical twins who have been implicated in serial rape, Quentin Cooper asks forensic geneticist Gill Tully from the Principal Forensics Services how DNA helps the police mobile gambling to find perpetrators and Tim Spector, a genetic epidemiologist from King”s College London, suggests that identical twins might not actually be as similar in their genes as we previously thought.
To listen to the BBC Radio 4 programme Click Here.
CBC radio – Quirks and Quarks
Identical twins are incredibly similar – which makes sense, since they have precisely the same genes. But a practiced eye can often find subtle differences. On this program, Bob MacDonald speaks with Tim Spector who explains how the new science of epigenetics can produce twins who are “Identically Different”.
The show “Quirks and Quarks – Identically Different: The Science of Epigenetics” can be heard at the CBC website by
Baronness Boothroyd, Patron of TwinsUK, visits the Department
On Wednesday 24th October we were delighted to welcome the patron of TwinsUK, Baroness Betty Boothroyd, on a visit to the Department of Twin Research. Baroness Boothroyd is a British politician, who served as Member of Parliament and, from 1992 to 2000, as the first, and to date only, female Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1995 she was appointed the Order of Merit, an honour that is a personal gift from the Queen.
Baroness Boothroyd discussing the TwinsUK resource with Director Prof Tim Spector and Dr Debbie Hart, Executive Director
Profesor Spector first had the pleasure of meeting with the Baroness when they featured together in December on BBC Radio 4’s “Today Programme”. The programme was questioning the Baroness about how, as a woman in her 80’s, she continues to be “in fine fettle” – something that those who meet her often comment on. In order to get some answers she met with Professor Spector to discuss the genetics of ageing and underwent a ‘twin visit’ at the Department where she had a number of routine tests.
Impressed by our successful research into ageing and a whole range of health issues such as obesity, heart disease and osteoarthritis she agreed earlier in the year, much to our delight, to become a patron of TwinsUK, our twin registry.
On her visit to the Department she spent the morning meeting our senior investigators and members of staff, discussing our work and future ambitions. She also took this opportunity to walk round our new offices where she had the chance to see closely how the input of each member of staff contributes to our research.
We will shortly be posting a YouTube video of our interview with her, where she answers questions about which areas of research are closest to her heart, what she enjoyed most about her “twin visit”, the way her childhood influenced her and her top tips for healthy ageing.
We were all struck by her keen interest and vigour, and how enthusiastic she was to learn about our research advances and our media appearances. We look forward to many years of her patronage and to celebrating our 21st anniversary with her.