New Collaborative Research Centre for the University of Ulm: Ageing at Interfaces

2. December 2021

In a highly competitive process, the University of Ulm has acquired its fifth Collaborative Research Centre (SFB). The new SFB 1506 “Ageing at Interfaces” is dedicated to one of the most pressing challenges in medicine: the ageing of the human body and the diseases and limitations often associated with it. The interdisciplinary researchers are looking at interfaces at the cellular and molecular level that have an influence on the ageing of tissues, organs or the entire organism. The German Research Foundation (DFG) is funding the new SFB for an initial four years with around 11 million euros.

Demographic change is unstoppable: In many countries, the proportion of people over 65 is rising rapidly. Enabling this growing population group to age healthily is one of the most important tasks of medicine and the life sciences. “When the human body ages, there is a loss of structure and function of tissues and organs. At the same time, the regenerative capacity decreases and age-associated diseases develop,” explains SFB coordinator Professor Hartmut Geiger, head of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Ulm University.

While intensive research is being conducted on typical signs of ageing such as Alzheimer’s or cardiovascular diseases, fundamental mechanisms at the molecular and cellular level are still poorly understood. The new SFB aims to fill this research gap: The scientists focus on interfaces such as synapses or stem cell niches that mediate interactions between proteins, cells and tissues. “The new SFB looks at ageing as a strongly interconnected, interlocking process. We are convinced that disturbances at molecular interfaces can trigger or influence ageing processes of tissues and organs,” explains deputy SFB coordinator Professor Karin Scharffetter-Kochanek, Medical Director of the University Department of Dermatology and Allergology. A deeper understanding of the processes at such interfaces is thus crucial for the regulation of the ageing process and could pave the way to new therapies.

What influence does ageing have on the nervous system? Why does the regenerative capacity deteriorate in the course of life? And to what extent does the ageing of the immune system and connective tissue determine the condition of organs? The SFB researchers are seeking answers to these and other questions in three project lines that focus on interfaces of the nervous system, the immune response or organ ageing.
The 18 SFB subprojects focus, for example, on possible triggers of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or on the ageing or rejuvenation of haematopoietic stem cells, which, among other things, have an influence on the immune system. Other research projects are dedicated to the identification of biomarkers for chronological and biological age or they are investigating the extraordinary self-healing potential of zebrafish. The aquatic animal can regenerate severed body parts or heart muscle cells even at an advanced age and thus provides important clues to “anti-aging strategies” in humans. In addition, the Collaborative Research Centre is looking at gender-specific processes in the DNA damage response or the often accelerated ageing process in HIV-infected people.

For their investigations, the 29 researchers have human blood and tissue samples at their disposal, some of which come from the ActiFE study population in Ulm, a cohort with about 1500 test persons of senior age. The scientists also rely on animal models and computer simulations.
The ultimate goal is to transfer fundamental findings on the “interfaces of ageing” into clinical practice and enable seniors to lead healthier lives. “Our long-term goal is to develop new drugs or interventions that could slow down ageing at the cellular, molecular or epigenetic level,” summarises Professor Hartmut Geiger.

To achieve these ambitious goals, experts from neurology, dermatology, immunology, epidemiology and various natural and life sciences are pooling their knowledge in the new Collaborative Research Centre. In addition to the University and the University Hospital Ulm, the Agaplesion Bethesda Geriatrics Ulm, the Universities of Tübingen and Aachen as well as the Israeli Weizmann Institute of Science are involved.

“Ageing research is one of the strategic research areas of the University of Ulm and is highly relevant to society. Through the new Collaborative Research Centre, Ulm scientists will continue to make decisive contributions in this promising field,” emphasises Professor Michael Weber, President of Ulm University.

Further information: Prof. Dr. Hartmut Geiger: 0731/50-26700,

Prof. Hartmut Geiger coordinates the new Collaborative Research Centre "Ageing at Interfaces [Photo: German Stem Cell Network)