Imagine a world where you could take just a single pill for the treatment or prevention of several age-related diseases. Although still in the realms of science fiction, accumulating scientific data now suggests that despite their biological differences a variety of these diseases share a common cause: senescent cells. This has led scientists to find drugs that can destroy these cells.
When cells become damaged, they either self-destruct (apoptosis) or they lose their ability to grow and remain stuck within the body. These are the non-growing senescent cells that no longer carry out their tasks properly. They spew out chemicals that cause damage to cells nearby, sometimes turning them into “zombies” – hence why they are sometimes referred to as “zombie cells”. Eventually, the damage builds up so much that the function of bodily organs and tissues, such as skin and muscle, becomes impaired. At this point, we identify the changes as disease.
Depending on where these senescent cells gather within the body will determine which disease will develop. Senescent cells have now been shown to be linked to several diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and cancer.
In 2011 and in 2016, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the US showed, through the use of genetically engineered (transgenic) mice, that the removal of senescent cells reduced cancer formation, delayed ageing and protected the mice against age-related diseases. The mice also lived 25% longer, on average. A similar result in humans would mean an increase in life expectancy from 80 years to 100 years. It was proof-of-principle studies like these that laid the groundwork and inspired other researchers to build on these findings.
Killing a few to save the many
It is not known how many senescent cells need to be present to cause damage to the body, but the harmful effects of the chemicals they release can spread quickly. A few zombie cells may have a huge impact. Drugs for specifically killing senescent cells in order to extinguish their destructive force have recently been revealed and tested on mice. The collective term for these drugs is “senolytics”.