Counteracting aging in patients: Fact or fiction?

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N
Published May 8, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Senescent cells are integral to embryonic development, childbirth, and wound healing. Later in life, however, cellular senescence can be linked to a vast array of age-related conditions, including cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, and more.

  • Research shows that the combination of dasatinib and quercetin (D&Q) can function as senolytics—substances that “clear out” senescent cells—in patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and diabetic kidney disease.

  • Although the research surrounding the use of senolytics is optimistic, experts say that additional long-term studies and human clinical trials are necessary to determine whether they’re safe to use.

The majority of the world’s morbidity, mortality, hospitalizations, and health costs can be attributed to chronic illnesses, including neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. The leading predictive factor for most of these diseases, according to JAMA, is age.[]

Efforts to turn back the clock in patients with chronic diseases are underway, however, and removal of senescent cells may be the key to doing so, according to a research highlight from the NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA).[] 

As researchers investigate the long-term safety of senolytics and senotherapeutics, physicians can encourage patients to age healthily by eating well, exercising, and getting regular check-ups, per the CDC.[]

Senescent cells: A double edged-sword

The evolution of senescent cells in the human body is a dramatic one. According to the NIA report, cellular senescence—which occurs when damaged cells resist apoptosis, and thus remain to harm surrounding cells—is crucial to certain bodily states.

For example, senescent cells aid in the process of embryonic development and childbirth, as well as wound healing.

But cellular senescence becomes more harmful with age, as noted by the NIA.

As patients grow older and their immune systems weaken, the number of senescent cells in their bodies increase. 

Senescent cells are then quick to accumulate and attack healthy cells, which can influence how easily patients overcome illness and injury. The authors of the NIA article liken cellular senescence to mold.

"Like the one moldy piece of fruit that corrupts the entire bowl, a relatively small number of senescent cells can persist and spread inflammation that can damage neighboring cells."

Authors, the National Institute on Aging

As a result, senescent cells have been linked to a number of age-related conditions, including cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, dementia, and cardiovascular disease, among others.

In an effort to prevent chronic disease associated with age, researchers are exploring ways to remove senescent cells in older adult populations—and what they’ve found could pave the way for revitalization and longer lifespans among patients.

Removal of senescent cells is possible

If cellular senescence is one of the hallmarks of aging, would humans benefit from senescent cell removal? The answer is a tentative yes.

According to an article published by the Journal of Clinical Investigation, researchers have used the senolytic combination of dasatinib and quercetin (D&Q) to target senescent cells in humans.[]

In one open-label human pilot study, participants with mild to severe idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) took D&Q orally over the course of three weeks. The results showed that the senolytic treatment helped to alleviate physical dysfunction in participants.

For one, participants were able to walk significantly farther within a six-minute timeframe. In addition, they had major improvements related to gait speed and repeated chair-stand times. 

This preliminary study, while optimistic, did ultimately not prove that D&Q senolytic treatments could totally clear out senescent cells in humans.

Another study, however, did prove that D&Q significantly reduced cellular senescence, according to the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

This study looks at the therapeutic effects of intermittent treatment with D&Q in patients with diabetic kidney disease.

The participants took ​​a three-day oral course of D&Q. The results showed a reduction of SA-β-gal–positive and p16INK4a- and p21CIP1-expressing cells in adipose and skin biopsies.

Although this research is optimistic, experts say further clinical testing is necessary to determine the safety of D&Q.

“We haven't so far seen serious or severe adverse events in clinical trials with some of these agents, but it doesn't mean they won't happen,” Jim Kirland, MD, PhD, told the NIA.

Senolytics may not be available for clinical use just yet, but patients can still improve the course of their own aging process.

Make healthy choices

While researchers work on the future use of senolytics, older adult patients can take matters into their own hands with their everyday choices.

The CDC article states that older adults can practice healthy aging by eating an abundance of fruits, veggies, lean meats, and drinking lots of water.

Patients may also be able to prevent, delay, or manage chronic illness by engaging in daily movement. This may be beneficial for stamina and brain health as well.

The CDC recommends patients stop all use of tobacco, see their doctors regularly, and be familiar with their family medical history.

Finally, physicians can encourage patients who have questions about their brain health to talk with them for more information.

In sum, senolytics may revolutionize the aging process as researchers continue to learn about it. But for now, patients can rely on tried and true healthy decision-making to improve their overall health.

What this means for you

Senescent cells are necessary in earlier parts of development, but can pave the way for chronic diseases and age-related conditions later on. Studies show that intermittent, oral dosing of D&Q may alleviate physical dysfunction in patients with IPF, as well as reduce the cellular senescence burden in patients with diabetic kidney disease. Researchers anticipate future progress surrounding the use of relevant biomarkers in addressing the challenges associated with characterizing senescent cells for senotherapeutics.

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