Introducing the new King’s Centre for Ageing Resilience in a Changing Environment

26th October 2023 – by King’s College London

Grey-haired man jogging in white T shirt in front of trees

 

We are thrilled to announce a further funding award for a new research programme: the King’s Centre for Ageing Resilience in a Changing Environment (CARICE).

CARICE will be led by Claire Steves, Clinical Director of TwinsUK and Professor of Ageing and Health at King’s College London, and will involve researchers from across the university. We are delighted to be leading on this work from within the Department of Twin Research, given our 30-year history in studying health and ageing through TwinsUK.

CARICE’s mission is to address the dual challenge of climate change and ageing populations. Its vision is that older people will develop greater biological and social resilience in the face of environmental and physical stressors thanks to the benefits of greater scientific understanding.

CARICE’s four themes are:

·       Biological ageing resilience, led by Professor Cathy Shanahan and Professor Georgina Ellison-Hughes

·       Lifestyles and ageing resilience, led by Professor Steve Harridge and Dr Ana Rodrigues Mateos

·       Environmental stressors and ageing resilience, led by Dr Mariam Molokhia and Professor Mark Ashworth

·       Innovations to promote ageing resilience, led by Dr Jude Partridge and Professor Phil Chowienczyk

CARICE will support researchers at all career stages by creating an inclusive, interdisciplinary research environment in which they can focus future grants on pathways towards resilience. It will bring together researchers who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to work together, facilitating connections in the interests of addressing these global challenges.   

We look forward to sharing news of CARICE’s progress.

 

TwinsUK successful in bid for multi-million-pound award for resilience research

Tuesday 3rd October – by Paz García

Older, grey-haired man and woman holding hands facing away from the camera

We are delighted to announce that TwinsUK has received a multi-million-pound funding award to study resilience in health and ageing through Wellcome Leap’s Dynamic Resilience programme, jointly funded by Temasek Trust. 

Led by TwinsUK’s Clinical Director Professor Claire Steves, the award will see TwinsUK invite 2,000 twins for clinic visits to collect post-pandemic health data and samples through a study named Resilience after COVID-19. The team will then analyse these together with data collected before and during the pandemic to further investigate known and suspected sources of resilience in the body. 

Resilience is the capacity to withstand or bounce back quickly from difficulties, including stressors and disease. The COVID-19 pandemic was a major stressor for everyone during 2020-2022, both in terms of the disease itself as well as the wider impact on wellbeing due to lockdowns and shielding mandates.    

The Resilience after COVID-19 study at TwinsUK will allow researchers to understand how certain processes in the body – including inflammation, changes to the microbiome and altered metabolism – affect resilience, using the twin design to control for and unpick genetic and environmental contributions. This in turn will help identify sources of resilience which can be targeted to promote healthy ageing. 

Professor Claire Steves said: 

“As the world population gets older, we need to find ways of protecting ourselves and ensuring we are healthier for longer. One way of doing that is to understand what makes us resilient, and that is what we’re aiming to achieve through this research programme.  

“This work is only possible thanks to our twins’ dedication and contributions over many years before and during the pandemic, providing samples and answering questionnaires.  

“Eligible TwinsUK members will be invited to take part in the Resilience after COVID-19 study over the next three years, so do keep an eye on your inbox.”  

In addition, the Dynamic Resilience programme has also funded research at the University of Birmingham, in which collaborators at King’s College London will study blood and stool samples collected before and after cancer patients undergo treatment. They will use computational learning methods to understand how changes in hallmarks of ageing relate to clinical changes and how such changes could be developed as predictive biomarkers of resilience. 

We are thrilled that TwinsUK has been recognised as a world leader in this field and we look forward to contributing to essential work on resilience through these two awards. 

My week at TwinsUK

14th June 2023 – By Ellie P

When faced with the challenge of finding work experience it can hard to know which way to look. There is no website to tell you where to go, who will take you or if you will enjoy it, but for me I lucked out.

TwinsUK is an organisation which does invaluable research, and I am so grateful to have been able to witness and grow an understanding for everything they do here. I have had the opportunity to explore many different departments and see the whole research process from preparing their pre-packs to shadowing a twin visit and then on to the labs to see the data storage and analysis. Being with the Department of Twin Research has allowed me to learn and grow in the knowledge that a career in science is what I want. It has been an amazing opportunity which I am so thankful to have had.   

Monday was my day in the lab and it was the part of the week I was most excited for, and I was not disappointed – the team were welcoming and insightful into what lab life was like as well as courses and different approaches to get into different areas of science.

On Tuesday I spent a day in the clinic. I had never considered having a job in a clinic based environment but being able to see the different stages of testing and meeting the wonderful twins, has opened my eyes to a different angle of research which is sociable, exciting and practical.

During the rest of the week I also had the opportunity to chat and learn about different roles and be able to find out just how many people are involved with the studies that go on.

All throughout my week, everyone I met was friendly and was truly interested in the job they do, creating a warm, homely environment within the department and making my brief time at TwinsUK so enjoyable. It has been a fantastic week, filled with amazing experiences and an opportunity I would recommend to anyone thinking about going into the field. 

Under pressure: The link between belly fat, blood pressure and food responses revealed

26th October 2022 – By Paz García

Red cartoon heart underneath a semicircle of dots going from green on the left side to red on the right side. A dial from the heart is pointing towards the red side.

In a world first, a team of researchers led by TwinsUK has found that people with high blood pressure take longer and work harder to clear fats from the blood after meals and have higher levels of inflammation after eating. 

The research, published today in Nutrients, identified that this link is in large part due to visceral fat – the kind that wraps around your organs in your belly. 

This suggests that reducing belly fat could be particularly important in improving the body’s responses to food in people with high blood pressure. 

First author and TwinsUK researcher Panayiotis Louca said: 

“People with high blood pressure are more likely to have higher levels of visceral fat than people with normal blood pressure. Our study found that this visceral fat is indeed responsible for a considerable amount of the difference we see in blood fats and insulin levels between these two groups after meals.” 

The research was part of ongoing analysis of data collected during the PREDICT study, where 1,000 participants – including several hundred TwinsUK members – had their bodies’ responses to food measured over a two-week period. 

Previous studies have shown that people with high blood pressure have higher baseline levels of blood fats, insulin and inflammation compared with people with normal blood pressure, and higher blood fats following a fatty meal. The present study however was the first to investigate and compare responses between the two groups following a nutritionally balanced meal. 

Senior author and TwinsUK researcher Dr Cristina Menni said: 

“We’d like to thank all of the participants who spent a full day in clinic and then two weeks meticulously logging their meals and collecting blood samples at home. It’s because of your dedication that we are able to advance health research.” 

Louca et al. Postprandial responses to a standardised meal in hypertension: the mediatory role of visceral fat mass. Nutrients 2022

What does Long Covid mean to you?

4th February 2022

Woman lying in bed with mug

Since the pandemic began, people have been reporting that they have continued to experience symptoms for weeks or even months after infection. This can range from mild symptoms all the way to debilitating symptoms that have a major impact on people’s lives. This condition is now described as ‘Long Covid’ – but there is currently no set definition of what constitutes Long Covid, even as more and more people develop the condition.

TwinsUK is part of a multi-university study called CONVALESCENCE, which aims to understand, define and improve diagnosis of Long Covid. There are many parts to this project, and more information is available here.

As part of this research, we want to hear what Long Covid means to you. To facilitate this, the CONVALESCENCE team have created an online discussion forum. The aim of the forum is to ensure that a wider cross section of public and patient perspectives are included in discussions about how to define Long Covid and in the broader research. 

The forum is hosted on the People in Health West of England (PHWE) Discourse Platform. The platform works in a similar way to social media you may be familiar with such as Facebook. Your input will help in shaping how we progress the research going forward.  

The Long Covid forum space is public. Public forum areas on the Discourse platform can be viewed by anyone, but only people that have created an account can reply. 

If you would like to contribute to the development of this research as a public contributor, you are welcome to join the conversation by creating an account.  

Click on this link to view the public forum space dedicated to discussing how we should define Long Covid, and register for an account if you would like to participate in the conversation. Click here for a short guide to the forum. 

Have your say on TwinsUK research

27th January 2022

We are looking for new members of our TwinsUK Volunteer Advisory Panel (VAP) and eVAP, to replace our outgoing panel.

The VAP meet twice a year, either in person or by video call, and the eVAP provide input by email only. 

To apply to be a member, please complete the short online application below by Monday 7th March 2022 (extended from 14th February 2022). 

What are the VAP and eVAP? 

The VAP and eVAP provide feedback on new research protocols, pilot our questionnaires, review newsletters and participant information materials, discuss ethical issues, and provide advice on a variety of topics. 

We set up the VAP and eVAP in 2009 to ensure that we take the opinions and views of our volunteers on board during the development and running of research programmes at TwinsUK.

Membership lasts for three years.

The panel consists of: 

  • 12 VAP members who meet twice a year, either in person at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, or over video call. We also email VAP members approximately 4-6 times a year for their views. 
  • 12 eVAP members who are consulted by email only (approximately 4-6 times a year). 

How do I apply? 

There are no qualifications needed and everyone can apply, although only one twin in a pair can be on the panel at any one time – so please discuss with your twin before you volunteer! We also ask that you do not apply if you have previously been a VAP or eVAP member. 

Both panels will be selected to represent the diversity of TwinsUK in terms of zygosity, age and gender of the twins. 

If you would like to apply to become a member of the VAP or the eVAP, please click on the link below to complete the short form by Monday 14th February 2022. We will email you the outcome of your application by within a month of the closing date.  

Apply to join today

To apply, click on the link below and fill out the short form:

VAP application form

If you have any questions, please do get in touch with the Chair of the VAP, Paz García, on paz.garcia@kcl.ac.uk. 

Feedback from 2018-2021 VAP members

“I’ll really miss being part of VAP.  Throughout my time in lockdown, it really gave me a sense of purpose and a feeling that I was part of a team making a valuable contribution in the fight against Covid. The VAP enabled me to contribute some diverse and commercial risk management skills in a very different environment. Our VAP formed a great team where everyone was listened to and their views were respected.” 

“I was wary that the level of scientific explanations might be beyond me at times but I always felt that things were pitched in an appropriate way for us…. so don’t let people be put off by this.”

“I am very grateful to you all at the DTR for making my three years as part of the panel such an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.  It has been especially good to have been able to contribute to your vital work during the pandemic which was such a pressured time for you all.  Thank you so much.” 

People with mental health conditions hit harder by pandemic disruption

30th September 2021

Person holding clipboard and pen sitting at a table with a laptop

People who had higher pre-pandemic levels of depression or anxiety have been more severely affected by disruption to jobs and healthcare during the pandemic, according to a new study published today.  

The study looked at data from 59,482 people who are surveyed regularly as part of 12 ongoing longitudinal population studies in England, including TwinsUK.  

The researchers found that people who had higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms before the pandemic were 24% more likely to have had delays to medical procedures, 12% more likely to lose their job, and 33% more likely to have had disruption to prescriptions or medication during the first 10 months of the pandemic than those with average levels of anxiety and depression symptoms.  

Those with more severe symptoms of depression or anxiety experienced a much greater likelihood of disruptions to jobs, income and healthcare, the study found. 

Senior author Dr Praveetha Patalay, University College London, said:  

“Our findings highlight that the wider health and economic impacts of the pandemic have been disproportionately experienced by those with mental health difficulties, potentially leading to worsening longer term outcomes, even post-pandemic, for those already experiencing poor mental health.” 

The work was conducted as part of the COVID-19 Longitudinal Health and Wellbeing National Core study. The study is a collaboration led by University College London and involves researchers at many other universities, including TwinsUK researchers at King’s College London. 

Co-first author and TwinsUK researcher Dr Ellen Thompson said: 

“Thank you to all of our TwinsUK members for taking the time to complete questionnaires, many of which have been quite lengthy. We are only able to learn more about the pandemic and its impact thanks to your dedication to health research.” 

TwinsUK is one of 12 cohorts involved in this work. Professor Nishi Chaturvedi, co-lead for the Covid-19 Longitudinal Health and Wellbeing National Core study, said:  

“The anxiety and depression experienced by the participants of the study go beyond the mental ill health reported to GPs and healthcare services. This is a largely hidden group of people vulnerable to potentially long-lasting health and socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic. 

“UKRI support has enabled collaboration across 12 longitudinal cohort studies, allowing us to address critical pandemic-related questions that could not be answered any other way.” 

Di Gossa, Maddock, Green, Thompson, McElroy et al (2021) Pre-pandemic mental health and disruptions to healthcare, economic and housing outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic: evidence from 12 UK longitudinal studies. The British Journal of Psychiatry.

Twins begin the 2021-22 school year

7th September 2021 – by Emily Stevens

Nearly 2.4 percent of babies are now born as twins, the highest of any point in history. In the UK this means that, on average, there is now at least one pair of twins per year group at school.

In some places this rate is much higher. For the past several years, the number of twins starting school in Inverclyde, Scotland, has been in the double digits, leading to the nickname ‘Twinverclyde’. There are now over two hundred twins attending the first seven years of school, and there are no signs of slowing down — this year thirty twins, or fifteen pairs, are starting school for the first time in Inverclyde. It is unknown why this area continues to have such a high density of twins, year after year.   

Twins entering school or returning to school face one of two scenarios: they are in class together or in different classes. Sometimes they may even be enrolled in different schools.

Schools have different policies around twins going into the same classes. I remember in school rarely seeing both twins of a pair in class, and often I would only see them together at lunch or after school. Many times we would not realise classmates were twins until we saw them together.

If my classmates were identical twins, there would be tall tales of switching classes and estimating how long it would take teachers to notice. I recall three separate occasions of people assuming twins in different classes were one person and confusion when they did not recall events that had happened to their co-twin.  

Some schools push strongly for twins to be separated from each other, while other schools are small and only have one class per year so there is no option for twins to be separated.  

A 2018 study from Goldsmiths, University of London found ‘almost no sizeable positive or negative average effect of classroom separation’. This study indicates that schools’ push for twins to be separated is not backed by evidence of any benefit, but seems to be a net neutral.

Research suggests that 80% of schools in the UK give parents the choice of whether to keep twins together while 20% do not consult with parents and have strict policies. Individual family circumstances differ however, and schools maintaining one blanket policy may be less helpful than families making their own decisions.

In some cases, it may be better for twins to be kept together, especially if they have spent much of their lives in close contact with each other and it would be distressing for them to be separated. In other instances, it may be better for a pair of twins in school to be separated to avoid interpersonal conflict or encourage making connections with others.

Starting the school year is a unique experience for twins due to their relationship and bond with each other. Whether it brings out competitiveness or requires navigating new group dynamics, it brings new challenges and new experiences.   

How six researchers visited 500 twins in six weeks for groundbreaking COVID-19 research

24th August 2021 – by Emily Stevens

During the first UK lockdown in March 2020, two nurses and four research practitioners planned their days with military precision. They were under immense time pressure, for if they did not return in time, they would lose their window of opportunity. They had to receive special dispensation to drive across the country. With difficulty, they had managed to obtain PPE from a handful of suppliers and the NHS.  

Their mission? Groundbreaking research on COVID-19, detectability, antibodies and immune response with six hundred twins. 

New rules of engagement

TwinsUK, operating from the Department of Twin Research at King’s College London, was short-staffed during the first lockdown because some clinic team staff members were deployed elsewhere in St Thomas’ Hospital where they were needed more urgently. 

“How would we do it? Would the twins be comfortable with us visiting them in their own environment?” asked Clinical Operations Manager Alyce Sheedy, of the daunting task.   

It was both a mathematical puzzle and a tactical operation. Between the first blood draw and returning to the lab, there were only six hours before the samples would lose viability. 

In an 85-mile radius from St Thomas’ Hospital, from Southampton to Suffolk to Northampton to Kent Downs, the team were seeing an average of 26 twins each day. They accomplished this by hiring three cars and travelling in pairs. The team went to the most distant household of the day first and then continued to homes closer to the hospital.

Each pair of practitioners averaged eight home visits per day, driving throughout London and the south of England every day. In six weeks they reached over 500 twins for the first antibody study. 

The twins they visited were either asymptomatic or had previously reported symptoms and had completed their isolation period. The team did nose and throat swabs to test for COVID infection. The initial antibody study took blood for antibody and T-cell testing, stool to see if the virus was detectable in stool and long-term viral shedders, and they took urine and saliva samples. Twins who tested positive for antibodies were visited again 6-8 weeks later, as was their co-twin. 

250 of the initial 512 were visited again, and 52 twins were seen for T-cell blood tests, some which were repeat visits, and others who were being visited for the first time. 32 of the T-cell group were seen yet another time, and in April of 2021, 150 of the original 512 were seen again. 

Alyce Sheedy draws a blood sample from a TwinsUK member during a home visit

Working from home

Before the lockdown the twins participating in TwinsUK’s longitudinal cohort study had been coming in to St Thomas’ for medical examination and collection of samples, so the twins and practitioners were used to seeing each other in that context, but the home visits were different.  

“Being used to seeing twins in clinic environment, it was nice to see them in their own environment – it added another dimension to everything,” Alyce Sheedy observed.  

The twins were welcoming, excited to be a part of the research and to join in the collective effort of investigating and battling COVID 19. They offered snacks and drinks and bathroom usage, which was especially important during the first lockdown when businesses were closed, and toilets were far and few between. The nurses and research practitioners were able to answer questions the twins had and ‘reassure and alleviate fears, which was a good feeling’, Alyce Sheedy recalled.  

For some twins, the nurses and research practitioners were the only physical contact from outside that they had during lockdown, so it allowed for some company in person.  

Sheedy described a moment on a return visit in August of 2020 when a twin was having a cul-de-sac neighbourhood party, and as the visiting team left, kitted out in PPE, applause erupted across the neighbourhood.  

“It really showed that the twins were really appreciative of all the work we were doing on the COVID frontline.”         

TwinsUK has opened a brand new clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital

12th August 2021 – by Emily Stevens

TwinsUK unveiled an online video tour on the 12th August, 2021. 

Outside of sleek wooden, windowed doors bearing a ‘Welcome To Twin Research’ sign, there is a hand sanitiser dispenser and a doorbell to ring upon arrival.   

Beyond the doors there is a spacious clinic room with purple phlebotomy chairs — ‘They’re very easy to use, they go up and down’ — for bloodwork and windows looking out onto greenery and trees. The famed cardboard of Professor Tim Spector stands in this room. Around each of the three chairs are sliding screens allowing for additional privacy.  One of the screens is printed with the TwinsUK logo at banner size allowing for a backdrop for phots.  

The food room for coffee, tea and biscuits after the blood draws has refrigerators and a microwave, a tiled wall, a table with chairs, houseplants and a window looking out onto arched windows and brick. Depending on the study, lunch may also be provided in this room – and for certain nutritional studies there are muffins at breakfast and lunch.  

The eye room where standard eye checks are performed has optometry machines and a diagram of an eye on the wall. The reports of these eye tests will be given to participants.  

Another consultation room just down the same hall is used to record height and weight, and there is a desktop computer for computer-based tests and questionnaires. A window covered by a blind in this room brings in natural light. Walk tests would be carried out in the hallway outside of this room.  

The last room is the DEXA scan room for looking at bone density and body composition. There is another sliding screen in this room for changing into the gown for the scan. This screen is printed with an elegant image of the branches of a cherry blossom tree in pulled focus against a teal partly cloudy sky.  

This new clinic stands at the heart of the Department of Twin Research and warmly welcomes returning twins! 

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