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Ageing is the greatest risk factor for many life-threatening disorders, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. ‘Senescence’ is the term given to the biological ageing process which involves the build-up of senescent cells, called ‘zombie’ cells, which refuse to die.
Zombie cells release chemicals that can be harmful to nearby cells, eventually causing them to also become senescent. The build-up of these zombie cells in our bodies promotes ageing and age-related conditions, including cardiovascular disease.
The project, which will be led by Professor Georgina Ellison-Hughes, Professor of Regenerative Muscle Physiology at King’s, will test a new group of drugs, known as ‘senolytics’, which eliminate or disable zombie cells.
In lab studies, senolytics have been shown to eliminate zombie cells and improve conditions such as cataracts, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney problems, and age-related loss of muscle. Overall, they have shown to improve poor physical function and extend health span and lifespan.
This project will use a lab model where zombie human heart cells are grown together with healthy human heart cells. This will help understand how zombie cells are harmful to healthy heart cells, and by testing the effects of senolytic drugs, will determine if by eliminating zombie cells and/or stopping the harmful chemicals they produce improves the survival and growth of heart muscle cells and their ability to repair the heart.
If successful, the findings may pave the way for the development of senolytics to treat age-related heart disorders and the toxic effects of cancer chemotherapy on the heart.
Professor Ellison-Hughes said: ‘The treatment of zombie “senescent” cells is an incredibly interesting area of research, and this project has the potential to change the way we treat a whole range of conditions.
‘Ageing is something that we can’t control, but we may be able to reduce some of the risks that it poses to our health. We are extremely grateful to Heart Research UK for allowing us to undertake this vital research.’
Kate Bratt-Farrar, Chief Executive of Heart Research UK, said: ‘We are delighted to be supporting the research of Prof Ellison-Hughes and her team, which has the potential to have a big impact on the way that we treat a whole range of heart conditions.
‘Our Translational Research Project Grants are all about bridging the gap between laboratory-based scientific research and patient care – they aim to bring the latest developments to patients as soon as possible. The dedication we see from our researchers is both encouraging and impressive and Heart Research UK is so proud to be part of it.’
The £126,441 Translational Research Project grant was awarded to King’s as part of Heart Research UK’s annual awards for research into the prevention, treatment and cure of heart disease.
Last year, Heart Research UK awarded more than £1.6 million in grants for medical research projects across the UK. To date, the charity has invested more than £25 million in medical research via its grants programme.