When you get right down to it, it might be easier for James Kirkland, M.D., Ph.D., to rattle off all of the damage and dangers senescent cells don't present to our bodies as we grow older. "Senescent cells are cells that are no longer able to divide, and they can produce factors that damage the cells around them," he tells us. "They accumulate in our bodies with increasing age and appear at sites where age-related diseases develop — in the fat tissue of people with diabetes, in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease, around blockages in the coronary arteries and around cancers." Worst of all? "They resist dying, yet they're killing the cells around them," Dr. Kirkland says.
All of that might be coming to an end, however, thanks to the work of Dr. Kirkland and the team in Mayo Clinic's Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging. As KARE 11 News reports, Dr. Kirkland and his colleagues have been working in collaboration with Diana Jurk, Ph.D. — whose research lab in England has moved to Mayo Clinic — to develop a new arsenal of medications designed to selectively kill senescent cells while leaving the healthy cells around them unharmed.
Dr. Kirkland tells us if the long-term research and clinical trials prove what he's hoping they will, the impact on aging could be significant. "In mice these drugs have been shown to delay the onset, or partially reverse, neurodegeneration in most models of Alzheimer's disease," he says. And that's just the beginning. Dr. Kirkland says the drugs improve cardiac function with increasing age, improve lung function, prevent or partially reverse cirrhosis of the liver caused by obesity, partially reverse age-related osteoporosis, and even "delay the onset of age-related cancers as a group, and many other things."
One of the "many other things" could be of particular interest to the millions of American with anxiety. "Obesity, anxiety, and depression often go hand in hand," he tells us. "What we found with our collaboration in England is that, indeed, fat-like cells develop in the brain with people with obesity, in a deep part of the brain, close to the part of the brain that controls emotions, particularly anxiety," Dr. Kirkland tells KARE-11.
Which brings us to a potential treatment option. Dr. Kirkland and his colleagues discovered that giving obese, anxious mice senescent-cell-killing drugs helped reduce anxiety. "It's very easy to measure anxiety in mice because they're naturally afraid of open spaces," he says. "A normal mouse will do some exploring of open spaces, but an obese mouse will not because it has increased anxiety. But when we treat these animals with the drugs we developed here at Mayo, the senescent cells that line the cavities of their brain disappear, causing the mice to have reduced inflammation in their brain, an increased formation of new nerve cells, and in turn, decreased anxiety."
As encouraging as that sounds, Dr. Kirkland is quick to warn that more research is needed before we get too excited about the long-term possibilities. "This is a completely new way of looking at disease and treating age-related diseases in people, and we don't yet know what the side effects are going to be," he says. "Until then, people should not be self-medicating with these drugs, and physicians should not be prescribing them."
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