Medical Delta Professor Eline Slagboom: ‘The delta region is where everything comes together’
Professor Eline Slagboom has been studying multiple generations of families for over 20 years. She collects data on why some people age healthily and others decline early. This enables you to determine someone’s biological age more accurately and provide the most appropriate individual treatment or lifestyle advice.
‘Although the population is ageing, and this will become increasingly clear, lots of people pretend it isn’t happening.’
Eline Slagboom is Professor of Molecular Epidemiology at the LUMC and one of the Scientific Leaders of the METABODELTA: Metabolomics for clinical advances in the Medical Delta programme. She was recently also appointed as a Medical Delta Professor with a dual appointment at Delft University of Technology.
‘This appointment feels like a pat on the back,’ says Slagboom. ‘I have been working with Rotterdam and Delft for a long time and it is really nice that this is now becoming more visible and taking on a pink Medical Delta colour. Science is collaboration and this is a great way to promote that. Hopefully, it will inspire and lead to more cross-pollination and more opportunities for young people to get involved in research about ageing.’
Can you tell us a bit about your expertise?
‘I am a biologist and a professor of molecular epidemiology. My expertise is in biological thinking, especially in the human biology of ageing. Rising age is the biggest risk factor for almost all population diseases. I look for answers to questions such as whether you can use biomarkers to identify people who rapidly deteriorate as they age and are biologically vulnerable, and what to do with that information in the population and the clinic. Can you slow down that process? What physiological and mental capacity in the elderly can you still stimulate with interventions? And the mechanistic question: Why does one person benefit much more from treatment than another? The elderly still have much to gain on their own level. Nutrition and exercise contribute to healthy ageing and you can measure and biologically interpret that effect all over again.’
Is there enough attention for the elderly?
‘Not from young people. There are huge numbers of older people to come. By 2040, as much as 25% of the Dutch population will be 65 or older. These people will all be visiting the doctor as well. Young doctors are needed for that and they have to realise that treating the elderly and elderly patients is a different story. We need new and creative ways to keep the elderly healthy in society and a clinical setting. The elderly are not willing or able to undergo every treatment. At the LUMC, we are working on how to encourage young doctors and researchers to think more about that.
‘Ageing isn’t a sexy subject until you explain that the whole life cycle is part of it and you can collect data across several generations. Then it starts to feel closer for young researchers and doctors. Although the population is ageing, and this will become increasingly clear, lots of people pretend it isn’t happening. You can encourage young people in particular to become aware of how ageing is going to affect their profession. Engineers also need to start thinking about solutions for the wave of older people. The issue of population ageing badly needs the attention of clever and creative young people.’
What is your ambition as a researcher?
‘There are three aspects to my work: mechanistic research, biomarkers and interventions. I will have achieved the ultimate if I create something in each of these that I am really proud of. I have long been on trying to hunt down the “longevity genes” in people from the families in the Leiden Longevity Study. Generation after generation, family members age exceptionally well. Of the 20,000 genes in the genome, after 20 years of research we have reduced that to just 300. A huge step that I am very proud of. At the same time, it is a cliffhanger: which genes are they exactly and how do they work? Stopping that research is not an option.
‘Steps have also been made in the field of biomarkers. You can now use molecular profiles in the blood to measure how healthy or unhealthy you are as you age and learn something about your biological age. This method is already being looked at in clinical trials. We’ve stumbled on special biomarkers and are now looking to see how useful these are.
‘It turns out that there’s still plenty you can do to improve your health at the age of 65 or 70. This has a lot to do with exercise, nutrition, your biorhythm and sleep, stress and your social network. Biomarkers allow you to measure how you are improving. We apparently always have a hidden capacity to improve our health. If you can demonstrate progress, it’s motivating. We have done some great interventions and are seeing results.’
What do you hope to have accomplished for patients and healthcare professionals in five years?
‘I hope that I’ll understand the mechanisms of healthy ageing and that this will give insight into what elderly people can do to stay as healthy as possible. When you’re about 60 years old you think: “I want to be able to enjoy retirement.” It would be good if we could make better use of that “moment of realisation”; if people could learn how healthy or unhealthy they are; if they could receive proper help with what they can still do themselves; and if treatment could be tailored to their profile, personalised advice with what works for them. That also requires behavioural scientists. I may be able to prove what works for whom, but the trick is to actually get someone to do that.
‘The momentum really is at around 60 to 65. I can feel that myself. You start thinking about what else you can get out of life in the next 30 years. Forty per cent of 65-year-olds already have two diseases or more, just when you want to start enjoying your freedom.’
How does Medical Delta benefit your work?
‘I work with lots of other people within Medical Delta on biomarkers and interventions. For biomarkers, I do research in large population groups or patient populations. I often work with Arfan Ikram, Joyce van Meurs and Mohsen Ghanbari from Erasmus MC, great partners with a lot of knowledge about epidemiology. For the computational interpretation of all that data, I work a lot with Delft University of Technology, with Medical Delta Professor Marcel Reinders, for example. Innovative measurements for this research are done by Thomas Hankemeier from Leiden University, also a Medical Delta Professor. His Netherlands Metabolomics Centre in Leiden is the most extraordinary metabolomics lab in the Netherlands.
‘In the VOILA Public Private Project, of which I am the principal investigator, we complete the circle: special measurements in Leiden, cohort studies in Rotterdam and Leiden and innovative computational measurement methods in Delft. I work with researchers internationally and throughout the Netherlands, but for me, the Delta region is currently the place where everything comes together.’
What is your advice for successful collaboration?
‘Two things: first, you have to drive your own ideas. That means you should start by thinking carefully about what you want and put this on paper, backed up with good literature. Then people can see that you know what you are talking about and trust that you are a good researcher. Second, you have to get to know the other party and understand what drives them. Why are they in this? What is most important to them? There has to be added value for both of you. If that’s not equal, you won’t last long. So come prepared, with respect for the other person. That might sound simple, but putting that into practice takes some getting used to. Working with others is like a marriage. You have to keep on putting energy into it and looking at how well you work together. Don’t tread on other people’s toes, don’t forget other people’s interests and make sure they don’t forget yours either.’
What other researchers have inspired you and how?
‘Someone who has been very influential for me is Professor Dorret Boomsma from VU Amsterdam. She researches twins. In conversations with her, I found out how you can also do very good DNA research in humans; I mainly studied rats before that. I approached her in 1991. This was about research into telomeres, which are DNA structures at the ends of chromosomes. They shorten, and if that happens very quickly it is a biomarker for geriatric diseases. I asked her if we could see if that shortening is hereditary. The article on telomeres in twins ended up being my most cited article. That was because of her. She motivated me to write it up and tinker away at it until it was really good. Because of her, I also sent it to a good journal and it was read by a lot of people. She awakened the researcher in me. At that time I was still doing a lot of jazz singing and was hesitating between the two careers. She was the deciding factor that made me stay in research.’
Header photo: Eelkje Colmjon
Portrait photo: Photo editor