The MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit is the single largest MRC investment in the University of Southampton.

The unit commenced in 1979 under the Directorship of Professor Sir Donald Acheson; leadership moved to Professor David Barker in 1984, and was transferred to myself in 2003.

The current unit was re-configured from an MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre in 2010, and successfully negotiated its quinquennial review last year, with funding through to 2020. Core MRC funding of around £3m annually permits the employment of around 70 members of staff, supplemented by a team of around 25 externally supported research and support staff.

Our mission is to promote human health using lifecourse epidemiological methods; we focus on delineating the environmental influences throughout the lifecourse of age-related musculoskeletal (osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and sarcopenia) and metabolic (obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease) disorders; and developing population-based and high risk preventive strategies against these. In addition, we maintain and develop the long-term cohort studies assembled in Southampton as national and international resources to explore the mechanisms underlying the developmental origins of health and disease; these comprise the Hertfordshire Cohort Study, Southampton Women’s Survey, Helsinki Cohort Study and a series of cohort studies in India. Our aetiological research links genetic, epigenetic, metabolomic and proteomic techniques to understand developmental influences on disease susceptibility, and their transmission across generations. Finally, we develop and test interventions to improve human health and health behaviours across the lifecourse.

Our research is grouped within five scientific programmes:-
  1. Lifecourse Determinants of Bone and Joint Disease (Professor Cyrus Cooper, Professor Elaine Dennison, Professor Nicholas Harvey, Dr Kate Ward)
  2. Sarcopenia and Frailty (Professor Sian Robinson, Professor Elaine Dennison, Professor Catherine Gale, Professor Cyrus Cooper)
  3. Nutrition, Development and Lifelong Health In Transitioning Populations (Professor Caroline Fall, Professor Clive Osmond, Dr Kalyanaraman Kumaran)
  4. Development, Body Composition and Health (Professor Hazel Inskip, Professor Keith Godfrey, Professor Clive Osmond, Dr Janis Baird, Dr Mary Barker)
  5. Musculoskeletal Health and Work (Professor Karen Walker-Bone, Professor Keith Palmer, Professor David Coggon)

Over the period 2005-2015, the unit published 1,522 research papers with a total citation count of 47,540 and a combined h-index of 95. The normalised citation index has consistently been in the top quarter for MRC research as a whole over the last quinquennium.

Major achievements over the last year have included:-
  • Publication of the maternal vitamin D supplementation trial (MAVIDOS), demonstrating that supplementation is associated with improved offspring neonatal bone mass, for pregnancies culminating in winter births (Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 2016); and completion of the MRC SCOOP trial demonstrating hip fracture reduction among 6,250 women randomised to a WHO associated risk assessment tool and bisphosphonate therapy, in comparison with usual care (World Congress on Osteoporosis, 2016).
  • Our sarcopenia work has generated a basis for the epidemiological definition of this disorder, as well as a substantial collaboration with corporate partners addressing the epigenetic mechanisms involved in the aetiology of muscle weakness in later life.
  • Our programme of research in India has demonstrated that maternal nutrition and glucose metabolism before and during pregnancy have important effects on lifelong body composition and metabolism, and offspring follow-up of the Mumbai Maternal Nutrition trial continues. Recent funding successes include an MRC-ESRC Newton initiative for joint epigenetic studies between our Indian cohort and studies in Gambia; and a British Heart Foundation programme grant for follow-up of the unique New Delhi Birth Cohort study.
  • The work on development, body composition and health has led to four recent overview publications in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology; follow-up to the Southampton Women’s Survey continues at age 11-13 years; and we have secured BHF programme grant support for epigenetic studies using our unique biobank of stored maternal and faecal samples.
  • Intervention studies have examined the effectiveness of behaviour change approaches to optimise diet and lifestyle (LifeLab) and pregnancy (SPRiNG). We have also established a novel multicentre preconceptional food–based, multivitamin and micronutrient supplementation trial, aiming to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes and optimise body composition of the offspring at birth (NiPPeR).
  • Our occupational epidemiology programme has secured competitive external funding for an Arthritis Research UK/MRC Centre of Excellence in Musculoskeletal Health & Work, under the direction of Professor Karen Walker-Bone. The programme has successfully established a large (n=8,000) national cohort study for adults entering the retirement transition and generated early findings that premature retirement might be associated with clinical features suggestive of later physical frailty.

It will be apparent from the forgoing, that the Unit is a vibrant, friendly, and exciting place in which to work. The sharpened focus of having to deliver answers which impact upon human health, and address important clinical problems, over a cyclical period of five years, ensures that team science predominates and that there are strong linkages between our work and those of the Faculty as a whole. Our major collaborations are with the Institute of Developmental Science and the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre. We are also proud members of the Academic Unit of Human Development and Health, and have wonderful collaborations with the groupings within that unit, as well as across the Faculty and University. It is a privilege to lead the Unit, and I close by offering my thanks to all who work there, as well as the many of you across the Faculty and University who have participated in this life-time endeavour.

Professor Cyrus Cooper

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MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit

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