New study shows removing senescent cells reduces diabetes in mice

When senescent cells, also known as “zombie cells,” are removed from fat tissue in obese mice, severity of diabetes and its causes or complications decline or disappear, according to new research from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which was recently published in the journal Aging Cell.

In the study, researchers used genetically modified and wild-type or normal mice, and removed zombie cells two ways, causing genetically-mediated cell death and by administering a combination of senolytic drugs.

Senolytic drugs selectively kill senescent cells but not normal cells. Glucose levels and insulin sensitivity improved, according to the study abstract. The mice also showed a decline in inflammatory factors and a return to normal fat cell function.

The senolytic drugs also prompted improved kidney and heart function, both of which are common complications of diabetes, researchers said.

Inflammation and dysfunction of fat tissue cause some of the insulin resistance in obese people. In many cases, that dysfunction is caused by zombie cells that already have been shown to be responsible for conditions related to aging and illness, including osteoporosis, muscle weakness, nerve degeneration, and heart disease. These cells also accumulate in the fat tissues of obese and diabetic people and mice.

"Our findings show that senescent cells are a cause of obesity-related inflammation and metabolic dysfunction,” said James Kirkland, MD, PhD, senior author of the article and the director of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at Mayo Clinic. “Senolytic drugs hold promise as a treatment of these conditions and their complications, which include diabetes.”