Professor Paolo Madeddu and his team are working to delay the ageing of the heart. He tells Dr Leanne Grech how this research could allow older people to live a healthier life for longer.
The BPIFB4 gene has been associated with exceptional longevity
Each day, your heart beats around 100,000 times, pumping about eight pints of blood around your body. By the time you are 20, the heart’s function can begin to decline as part of normal ageing. As you get older, activities like running or playing tennis become more difficult. However, some 100-year-olds, like those living in Okinawa, a cluster of islands in southern Japan, appear to have unlocked the secret to a long and healthy life, with some of them seemingly having a heart younger than their age. “It’s a combination of a good lifestyle and good genes,” explains Professor Paolo Madeddu at the University of Bristol. “And we have discovered that one of these good genes can stop ageing.”
The gene that can stop ageing Professor Madeddu and his team have discovered that a naturally occurring variant of the BPIFB4 gene, which is more common in people who live to 100 or more, could help keep the heart young. A gene variant is a permanent change in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene. The team have already learned that mice treated with this variant have healthier hearts. In fact, transferring this gene variant to old mice seemed to help relax blood vessels in mice with high blood pressure and increase the amount of blood delivered to the muscles. In humans, ageing can affect many parts of the body, including weakening the heart and circulatory system. For example, heart failure, a serious and sometimes disabling condition for which there is no cure other than a heart transplant. Symptoms include breathlessness and feeling abnormally tired. Heart failure can occur at any age, but it is more common in older people, and in people who have had a heart attack and who have cardiomyopathy or high blood pressure.
Scientists are now beginning to understand how some natural variations in our genes might protect against heart diseases linked to ageing, such as heart failure. In this study, Professor Madeddu and his team in Bristol have been funded by the BHF with more than £172k to further investigate the role of the BPIFB4 gene variant. The BPIFB4 gene has been associated with exceptional longevity, helping protect against atherosclerosis (build-up of fatty material inside your arteries) and high blood pressure. The team now want to know if this gene variant can be given as a tablet and if it can reduce chronic inflammation (a damaging set of processes often seen in ageing hearts). Most genes contain the information needed to make functional molecules called proteins. Giving the corresponding protein as a pill instead of the gene variant could be an easier way to get the same result. Professor Madeddu and his team will test this idea in mice. If it succeeds, they hope to go on to a clinical trial in humans. “The study will provide proof of concept that our solution is valid. More studies are needed to show it is also safe – the fact that it is a human protein and not a [new] drug is encouraging. However, producing large quantities of protein is extremely expensive, and we will need investors or an industrial partner in the future. The BHF could help us to find the right partner,” explains Professor Madeddu.
I hope that the results of my work can make a difference in the lives of a lot of patients.
Helping older hearts Professor Madeddu is a cardiologist by background, and has been fascinated by the heart since he was a medical student. “Research requires a lot of determination and effort. I hope that the results of my work can make a difference in the lives of a lot of patients.” In 2021, around 12.5 million people in the UK were 65 or older. Life expectancy had been rising for decades, but the increases have slowed since 2010, and life expectancy for both men and women has fallen since the Covid-19 pandemic. Research like that of Professor Madeddu aims to help older adults stay healthy and independent for longer, which is among the UK Government priorities. “There is no current treatment to stop the heart’s ageing, and drugs used for heart disease can cause side effects in seniors,” explains Professor Madeddu. “We hope that giving older people a protein that is present in healthy centenarians, like those in Okinawa, helps their hearts work better for longer. Our approach proposes to increase health rather than simply combat disease. If we can find an effective treatment to delay ageing of the heart, we may be able to prevent serious disease in older people.”
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Monica Cattaneo 1 , Antonio P Beltrami 2 , Anita C Thomas 3 , Gaia Spinetti 1 , Valeria Alvino 3 , Elisa Avolio 3 , Claudia Veneziano 2 , Irene Giulia Rolle 2 , Sandro Sponga 2 , Elena Sangalli 1 , Anna Maciag 1 , Fabrizio Dal Piaz 4 , Carmine Vecchione 4,5 , Aishah Alenezi 6 , Stephen Paisey 6 , Annibale A Puca 1 4 , Paolo Madeddu 3 The longevity-associated BPIFB4 gene supports cardiac function and vascularization in aging cardiomyopathy. Cardiovasc Res. 2023 Jan 13;cvad008. PMID: 36635236 DOI: 10.1093/cvr/cvad008.