There’s something eerily dystopian about the lives of cells.
Like the young heroes in popular teen novels, cells are born into stringent organ “societies,” destined to perform specific roles preordained by their DNA expression. Like the bodies they inhabit, cells have limited lifespans, and when they grow old, they begin leaking toxic molecules into their surroundings.
To protect the body, aged cells undergo the ultimate sacrifice: they switch on molecular machinery that results in their own death—a process beautifully named “apoptosis,” meaning the “gentle falling of leaves” in ancient Greek.
But sometimes aged cells go rogue. Rather than committing suicide, these cells lurk in our hearts, livers, kidneys and brains, where they silently promote disease. Scientists have long suspected that these “senescent” cells cause us to age, but getting rid of them without harming normal, healthy cells has been challenging.
Now, a collaborative effort between the Erasmus University in the Netherlands and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California may have a solution. Published in the prestigious journal Cell, the team developed a chemical torpedo that, after injecting into mice, zooms to senescent cells and puts them out of their misery, while leaving healthy cells alone.
“This is the first time that somebody has shown that you can get rid of senescent cells without having any obvious side effects,” says Dr. Francis Rodeir at the University of Montreal in Canada, who was not involved in the study.