Your "zombie cells" are aging you from within

Can science kill them?

Can science kill them?

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Don't bother with the locks, the zombies are already here. They're inside your body and, if the science holds, they're wreaking havoc.

"Zombie cells" are aging you. They're thinning your hair, dulling your eyes, and leaving you infirm and sick. Sure, they may not be eating your flesh, but they aren't doing it any favours either. The kicker is that we've known about them for five decades — well before George Romero transformed zombies into a household horror trope. Thankfully, science is finally on it and research shows we may be able to kill them to leverage the ills of old age, if we can manage the extermination properly.

Over the last decade, so-called senescent cell (cells that have entered a zombie-like stage) have been under the microscope more than ever. Just this year, researchers were able to "restore fitness, fur density and kidney function" in mice by weeding out cells that had entered senescence. I, like many men, found my interest particularly peaked at the restoration of "fur density". No matter. More crucially, the process appears to have repaired damaged cartilage and been effective in alleviating lung disease. The recent findings echo one study from last year that extended lifespans in aging mice and another from 2011 that successfully staved off the normal but unwanted effects of time producing similar anti-aging phenomena. A healthy mouse lifespan is about three years. Presumably rodent subjects didn't look a day over one and a half once all was said and done.

Dr Jennifer Elisseeff, biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland confirms that "just by removing senescent cells, you could stimulate new tissue production." Having lead the cartilage study, Elisseeff says the elimination jump-starts natural repair mechanisms. This, unmistakably, is fountain of youth science but unsurprisingly, it's messy.   

(Credit: nature.com)

Almost all our cells, it seems, have the potential to go full zombie. Once it's entered senescence, the winter of its life, a cell isn't fully dead or alive. It's undead. And undead cells, it seems, age you. Cue thunderclap and pearl clutching. The cell no longer replicating, starts vomiting forth proteins as an alarm signal to the body to send immune-system aid. In young tissue, that's restorative: the body kills the zombies. But like a horror movie, once too many zombies build up over time, the body begins to read the call as a false signal and ignores the cry. It's too late, you're old.

Consider that chronic inflammation of the joints (osteoarthritis) and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) are a couple of problems that arise when zombie cells begin to pile up. Ultimately, they just cause local inflammation — which is a bit of a catch all to suggest something detrimental is happening in the body. Inflammation, interestingly, is linked to an astounding amount of illnesses. Important aside: pineapples and sweet potatoes are two anti-inflammatory foods you should be chewing on right now, but there are tons. So, eating right could fight your inner zombies. Take note if you haven't yet.

Unsurprisingly, pharmaceutical companies and biotech outfits are clamouring to have zombie-cell killing drugs, known as senolytics, trialed and tested so they can bottle and market a viable pill for the ravages of time. Over the next three years, Unity Biotechnology in San Francisco has firm plans to execute clinical trials of the stuff to field treatment options for sufferers of eye disease, pulmonary disease and osteoarthritis. It is hopeful. Unity's president, Ned David, says if trials yield even "a whiff of human efficacy" it'll bolster trials and treatments in the field of anti-aging medicine.

Dr. James Kirkland, a gerontologist at the Mayo Clinic, who's also begun trials with senolytics confessed his concerns. "I lose sleep at night because these things always look good in mice or rats, but when you get to people you hit a brick wall." He's not sure we know enough to jump into human trials for a host of reasons. For starters, wounded rodents who'd been given senolytic compounds suffered one notable side effect: they healed slower. So, ostensibly you could look and feel ten years younger, but die if you nick yourself shaving (or some other more plausible side effect). While many would be willing to roll the dice with those odds, Kirkland says, "it's just too dangerous". The science is still so new, we should probably hold off on total zombie cell extermination just yet. What's more, senescent cells are metabolically active and still dutifully perform basic cellular functions which could mean we still need them in small doses. But the science isn't there yet.  

Still, if you're hoping to rid yourself of youth stealing zombies sooner rather than later, Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City thinks that's likely. He's adamant that senolytics are "absolutely ready" for trials and says the drugs "could come soon and be effective in the elderly now, even in the next few years." Ideally, any leaps forward will alleviate suffering in an aging population if not put the sheen back in our "fur".

As exciting and hopeful as the recent research is, do stay your excitement awhile. There is another major setback. It proves very challenging to get trial funding for drugs that treat something so broad and ambiguous as "getting old". For one, it's not an illness, it's just a reality of life — at least as far as current medical science is concerned. Cue blood curdling scream. And fade to black.    


Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen