Longevity Spotlight: What Are Zombie Cells?

Longevity Spotlight: Are Zombie Cells Haunting Your Longevity?

Quick overview of what we’ll cover in this blog post:

  • What are zombie cells
  • How they impact our longevity
  • The Mayo Clinic’s research on zombie cells
  • What we can do to mitigate the damage

Have you heard of zombie cells?

Even those who have become bona fide longevity ambassadors might not recognize this term. Still, these broken, damaged cells could be lurking within our bodies, stalking otherwise healthy cells, and spreading a plague of dysfunction in their wake.

Though you might not know it, zombie cells are the preeminent identifier of aging, a notoriously damning hallmark that could indicate looming age-related disease.

But just what are zombie cells, and why are they so devastating? The TODAY Show recently asked these same questions to a top aging researcher, and his answers were nothing short of surprising.

What Are Zombie Cells?

Wherever researchers look for signs of disease, they find an accumulation of these “zombie” cells. So, just what are zombie cells?

Zombie cells are another term for senescent cells, which may ring more familiar to longevity enthusiasts. Senescent cells can be understood as cells that have become sick and weak overtime from accumulated damage. These cells stop functioning as they normally would, and soon stop dividing altogether.

They’re commonly referred to as zombie cells because they’re severely damaged (like virally infected, monstrous zombies). These cells turn on genes that make them death resistant and release molecules that make other cells senescent and zombie-like.

However, senescent cells do play an important role in our bodies. When we’re younger, smaller groups of senescent cells can help heal our wounds and even fight tumors. But these must be cleared away by our immune system after their purpose is served, a function which diminishes as we age. Eventually, though, enough accumulated senescent cells will release inflammatory factors that spur on the growth of cancer cells.

How do cells become zombies?

Simply put – stress and damage, whether it be a wound or a bad infection, excess ultraviolet light exposure, or toxins from a bad diet.

As a cell accumulates damage, it has a few choices of how to deal with that damage:

  1. Repair the damage
    This may seem obvious, but keep in mind that a cell’s ability to repair itself diminishes with enough damage. Cells will likely continue to repair themselves until they can’t, at which point it will take another path.
  2. Apoptosis
    Every movie has its hero, and in this movie it’s apoptosis cells, or cells that essentially sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the organism. These cells bring in healthy cells as replacements before allowing their own death. But cell death isn’t a bad thing; in fact, millions of cells in your body die each second through apoptosis, adding up to billions a day.
  3. Senescence
    If a cell is unable to repair itself or succumb to apoptosis, it will become senescent, or zombie-like. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: as mentioned above, senescent cells play an important role in small amounts. But hordes of zombie cells may form over time – and with age – which is when the real problem begins.

What do zombie cells do?

If we can think of senescent cells like zombies, think of a concentration of zombie cells as an outbreak, an area of the body where the infection is most likely to spread.

When there’s an outbreak of zombie cells, the surrounding tissue, muscle, or organ will start to be affected, which can cause everything from dysfunction to disease.

For example, if accumulated in a muscle group, you could experience sarcopenia, or age-related loss of muscle. Similarly, zombie cells in our hearts may cause heart disease. Researchers often note senescent cells in the brain as a feature of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Story TODAY

When Mayo Clinic’s Nathan LeBrassuer spoke with The TODAY Show, reporter Jacob Soboroff may not have realized that he wasn’t interviewing an ordinary scientist.

LeBrasseur is one of the leading geroscientists in the field, and one of the most important longevity researchers today. LeBrasseurs’s research has been observing the role of zombie cells in aging. He and his team of zombie cell hunters have targeted and treated these cells in mice tests. The results, he notes, could change the way we treat age-related diseases.

LeBrasseur designed drugs to kill senescent cells (known as senolytics), observing a noticeable improvement compared to control groups. Mice treated with senolytics were more agile and alert than mice the same age who did not receive senolytics. Further, mice in the control group lost more hair, had worse eyesight, and developed much worse posture.

Though human trials haven’t started, LeBrasseur is still testing the effects of senescent cells on human tissue—specifically, human skin. His team grew two sets of human skin in petri dishes: one with 80% senescent cells, and one with 20%. The former presented closer to an 80-year-old’s skin, while the latter functioned more like that of a 20-year-old.

To Lebrasseur, the results were not just a clear success, but also a clear indication of the future of longevity treatments. With senolytics, we may be able to redefine what it means to grow old by delaying the onset of disease so we can live our healthiest and fullest to the very end.

What can we do about zombie cells?

LeBrasseur’s method of treating senescent cells is perhaps the most effective to date, but he concurs that more testing is needed to realize the full potential of treating senescent cells in humans. As studies continue, there are at least a few ways we can silence senescent cells in the meantime.

Both Metformin and Rapamycin inhibit zombie cells from spewing their inflammatory infection. However, they fall short of senolytics and don’t kill zombie cells outright. Rather, they defang zombie cells without killing them, as if to keep them on a chain as a pet (ever seen the end of Shaun of the Dead?). Thus, ending your Metformin or Rapamycin regimen is like taking the chain off. Still, these treatments can be highly beneficial at preventing age-related disease when taken at the right age and the right dose.

Similarly, Glutathione (GSH) can block some of the major causes of damage for skin cells, including ultraviolet light exposure, dryness, and inelasticity. Glutathione is among the most powerful antioxidants in our body, but its natural levels decline with age, allowing more cell damage and thus more zombie cells as they decrease. Supplementing with Glutathione can help senescent cells from forming in the skin, leading to a more youthful-looking skin.

Until a team of zombie killers like those at Mayo Clinic come and save the day for treating aging, these may be the best methods of fighting zombie cells. But if LeBrasseur has inspired your own crusade against zombie cells, our experts are ready and available to provide all the tools you need to fight aging.

Note: The above statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.