Destroying worn-out cells in the organs of middle-aged mice made them live longer, healthier lives, reported a study that raised intriguing prospects for anti-ageing treatments.
Mice minus these aged or "senescent" cells went on to enjoy better kidney function and stronger hearts, a later onset of cancer and fewer cataracts than untreated peers, according to a research paper in the journal Nature.
‘Removing aged cells may be useful to treat aspects of age-related functional decline, age-related diseases that involve senescent cells, or side effects of therapies that create aged cells.’
"The mice that were treated to remove their senescent cells had a lifespan extension from 25 to 35 percent," said study co-author Darren Baker of The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Minnesota.
"We found at 18 months of age, so after six months of treatment, the treated animals were more exploratory, more active, they had also improvements in kidney function, in heart function..." he said. The benefits extended to both genders, and different strains of mouse.
"In all cases we found that there is a significant health and lifespan extension," Baker explained in a recording made by Nature.
The team genetically-engineered mice in which senescent cells can be easily eliminated by using drugs to trigger a cellular "suicide gene".
Senescent cells are cells which have stopped dividing, and no longer function. Some are shed naturally, but others accumulate in organs over time. They have been speculated to have a role in ageing.
"We knew that senescent cells were accumulating with age in natural tissues and the thought was: let's just start removing these things starting at mid-age in mice and see what the consequences were," said Baker.
The results suggested "this approach may be useful to treat aspects of age-related functional decline, age-related diseases that involve senescent cells, or side effects of therapies that create senescent cells," the study authors wrote.
A future step in research would be to test the method on already aged mice, to see if removing senescent cells can reverse age-related decline.
Since we cannot engineer humans with the so-called "suicide gene", the method cannot be directly tested in our own species, Baker explained.
"But there are a variety of groups that we know of that are specifically looking for compounds that can selectively eliminate these senescent cells with age that accumulate in you and I," he said.
"So it is not a far-fetched idea to think that there will be things that will be coming down the pipeline that influence or remove these senescent cells."
Ageing is associated with a progressive decline in cognitive function as well as physical deterioration, and finding a "cure" has been a long-held dream of science.