The mechanical properties of tissues play a vital role in maintaining health. Elastic fibres, for example, allow tissues such the skin, lungs and blood vessels to deform and recoil whilst the giant protein titin plays a major role in elasticity of the heart. During ageing these tissues become stiffer, contributing significantly to patient morbidity and mortality. Using nano-mechanical, micro-mechanical, biochemical and proteomic analyses of aged and young tissue samples my research aims to characterise the fundamental molecular changes in elastic proteins which underlie age-related changes in tissue elasticity.
Ageing of elastic fibre components.
Elastic fibres are composed of fibrillin microfibrils and elastin. Our work has demonstrated that the microfibrillar component loses both strength and mass during ageing. In many tissues these age-related effects are exacerbated by exposure to environmental factors such as ultraviolet radiation, smoking and raised blood glucose levels. In collaboration with colleagues in the Dermatological Sciences, Cardiac Medicine and Tissue Injury and Repair Research Groups, and in the Faculty of Life Sciences, I am characterising the effects of ageing, sun exposure, smoking, diabetes and estrogen deprivation on elastic fibre structure and function.
Ageing of the heart.
Titin is the largest known protein in the human body. During each heart beat titin molecules act to return the heart cell to its resting size. In collaboration with colleagues in Cardiac Physiology at the University of Manchester I am using atomic force microscopy and quantitative electron microscopy to track changes in the structure and mechanical function of titin in the ageing heart.
Tissue elasticity at the microscopical scale.
The mechanisms by which changes in molecular structure influence the mechanical properties of whole tissues are not well understood. In collaboration with colleagues in the School of Materials I am developing scanning acoustic microscopy as a tool for mapping the mechanical properties of tissues at the microscopical length scale.
Desmsomes are junctions which join adjacent cells. Although the composition of these important cellular organelles is relatively well characterised the molecular structure remains poorly defined. In collaboration with colleagues in the Faculty of Life Sciences I am using atomic force microscopy to characterise their ultrastructure.