Project Spotlight: World DNA Day – FIT-MIRS as Potential Therapeutics for Muscle Wasting

Posted: 25 April, 2023

Dr Katarzyna Goljanek-Whysall (headshot)

Happy World DNA Day! Developments in the field of genetics have been some of the most important and ground-breaking in the last century. To celebrate DNA Day, we spoke to Dr Katarzyna Goljanek-Whysall about her Laureate project investigating the prospects for microRNA based interventions in minimising age-related muscle loss.


Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

As we get older, it’s normal to lose muscle strength, with people over 50 losing up to 1-2% of their skeletal muscle each year. Age-related muscle loss can lead to reduced strength, frailty, and affect people’s ability to do everyday activities. Despite affecting most older people, we don’t fully understand how age-related muscle loss happens. Similarly, in cancer patients or critical illness survivors, muscle loss can lead to frailty and an overall decrease in the quality of life. The search for treatments to prevent muscle loss requires better understanding of the underlying changes in ageing muscle. We are interested in microRNAs –tiny molecules that play an important role in regulating tissue function by controlling protein production. We believe that microRNAs may be important to developing successful treatments for declining muscle function as we age. These molecules can be manipulated and we believe that restoring their normal levels can help ameliorate muscle loss or even reverse it, hence contributing to living longer and living well.

Dr Goljanek-Whysall imaging cells under a microscope

Dr Goljanek-Whysall imaging cells under the microscope. Imaging cells is a significant element of the project, as researchers try to determine the effects of microRNAs.

What inspired you to pursue research in this area?

During my MSc in Poland, I met an inspiring supervisor who initiated my interest in microRNAs – newly discovered non-coding molecules with a great potential in regulating tissues homeostasis. My PhD degree was in muscle development, focusing on microRNAs again. As I progressed in my career, I got interested in regeneration and furthermore, conditions where tissue regeneration may not function well. At this point, it was clear that microRNA regulate multiple processes and I continue to research their function and therapeutic potential for ageing and related conditions.

In your opinion, why is your research important? What could we better understand about the topic?

We are an ageing population and undoubtedly this will have a great impact on not only individuals, but society as a whole. Whilst we live longer, there has been a modest to minimal increase in so-called healthspan– years of life spent disease-free. The ultimate goal of my research is to increase healthspan. Preserving muscle function until late life will likely delay the onset of frailty, allow for prolonged independence of individuals, and enhance quality of life overall.  Whilst we do not fully understand the processes underlying ageing or muscle wasting, we know exercise and dietary interventions can be beneficial for many people. However, a number of barriers exist and we are engaging with the general public, through PPI (public and patient involvement), to better understand these challenges and the means to overcome them.


A human myoblast with mitoQc reporter

Image of a human myoblast with mitoQc reporter, showing mitochondria, the cell batteries which experience functional decline in ageing.

What are some of the greatest challenges facing researchers in your field? What are the greatest opportunities?

One of the greatest challenges in studying ageing-related processes is their complexity – ageing is a whole body phenomenon and changes in tissues are interlinked. There is also a concept of biological versus chronological ageing and so-called biological age clocks are being developed at the moment to better understand the ageing of individuals and better tailor potential interventions. A lot of challenges stem from misconceptions around ageing and rejuvenation and it is important that rigorous scientific processes are followed to develop novel interventions. Ageing is also a natural event and it is important not to stigmatise it through associating it with sickness.

There are also loads of great developments in the ageing field – for example, the first human clinical trials of senolytics showing promising results. There are a lot of opportunities to engage the public in this research around ageing and encourage active lifestyle, which at the moment is the most effective means of staying healthy for longer.

A University of Galway lab get-together to celebrate project progress, beside the river Corrib

Our lab at University of Galway lab get-together on the banks of the river Corrib.

How has the Irish Research Council supported you in your work?

It’s been amazing having the IRC as my funder – it enabled me to set up my research in Ireland. IRC’s proactive support has allowed us to perform studies using state-of-the-art approaches and with translational potential. We are also lucky to be able to engage with people with muscle loss to better understand the challenges they face and how our research can contribute to solving the issues they face.

Eventually, I hope that microRNA-based therapeutics will be developed for muscle loss during ageing, but also cancer or critical illness. We will keep investigating microRNAs in muscle in different situations and stages of life, such as during exercise, as well as in women compared with men, to better tailor existing exercise and nutrition programmes alongside finding microRNA drugs to slow down muscle loss.

Dr Goljanek-Whysall is the recipient of a 2018 Starting Laureate research grant, and in 2020 received funding in the IRC-HRB-SFI co-funded Rapid Response Call to research microRNA-based approaches to improving long-term patient recovery and reducing post-COVID-19 disability.

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