Clearing Out Old Cells Combats Aging In Mice; Will It Work For Us?

Want to prevent wrinkles, muscle loss and eye problems as you age? Just flush out your body’s old cells. Okay, okay, that’s not quite possible yet. But it could be a possibility in the not-so-distant future, thanks to new research from the Mayo Clinic.

Scientists at the Mayo Clinic wanted to determine whether getting rid of ‘senescent cells‘ in the body could help prevent some of the health woes related to aging. Senescent cells are old cells that no longer function properly but hang about the body anyway, wreaking havoc (secreting inflammatory hormones and doing other nasty things that make healthy, neighboring cells less functional). The researchers, led by molecular biologist Jan van Deursen, injected mice that had been genetically engineered to age quickly with a drug that could rid their bodies of these senescent cells.

Guess what? Once the old cells were gone, so were many age-related health issues. The photo above provides a nice illustration: Both mice pictured are the same age, but the one on the right was given the senescent cell killer, and the one on the left was not.

The researchers actually tested two different sets of rapid-aging mice. In one group, senescent cells were ‘deleted’ throughout the mice’s entire 15-month lifespan; the other group of mice were treated only after age-related problems had begun to set in. The mice who got the drug the whole time aged without developing typical old age issues, like cataracts, loss of muscle mass, reduced strength, spinal arthritis or thinning of the skin (which produces wrinkles). For the mice in whom problems like these had already started, deleting senescent cells was able to slow their progress. Both groups of mice showed increased activity levels once the senescent cells were gone.

“This research has identified a cell class that makes you old and makes you have age-related declines. We can now start to think about how you can get rid of them,” said van Deursen.

But whether the results will translate to other species, including humans, remains to be seen. Experts say the work is interesting and exciting, but we shouldn’t start crying fountain-of-youth yet.

“When they blocked the senescent cell process … mice that should have looked prematurely aged were essentially normal,” noted Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. But he also stressed that results need to be replicated in other species before the public gets excited about the medical promise of destroying senescent cells.

According to the New York Times:

Drugs already exist to combat some of the inflammatory hormones secreted by senescent cells. The body’s immune system, which probably clears away senescent cells all the time but does so less efficiently with age, could perhaps be trained to attack senescent cells more aggressively. Or researchers could one day develop specific drugs to kill the cells, when the differences between ordinary and senescent cells are better understood.

Photo: New York Times

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