Zombies are rarely welcome guests. Researchers at Mayo Clinic have discovered this applies not only to human zombies, but havoc-wreaking zombie cells as well.

Published in Nature, their study demonstrated that a buildup of senescent cells (cells that have stopped dividing), can negatively impact health, and even shorten the lifespan of healthy mice by as much as 35 percent. Therefore, clearing out these “zombie” cells is beneficial because it delays tumor formation, preserves organ and tissue function, and extends lifespan. Although the research was conducted on rodents, the results could lead to the development of approaches that reduce age-related health risks in humans.

“Cellular senescence is a biological mechanism that functions as an ‘emergency brake’ used by damaged cells to stop dividing,” said Dr. Jan van Deursen, Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular biology at Mayo Clinic, and senior author of the paper, in a statement. “While halting cell division of these cells is important for cancer prevention, it has been theorized that once the ‘emergency brake’ has been pulled, these cells are no longer necessary.”

The immune system is supposed to clear out these cells naturally and on a regular basis. However, this process becomes less effective over time, and makes the organism vulnerable to the senescent cells, which produce factors that damage adjacent cells and can cause chronic inflammation, a common theme among age-related diseases.

“Senescent cells that accumulate with aging are largely bad, do bad things to your organs and tissues, and therefore shorten your life but also the healthy phase of your life,” van Deursen said.

For the study, van Deursen and her colleagues used a transgene to allow for drug-induced eradication of the senescent cells from healthy mice. Upon injection of the drug, the lifespans of the animals increased by 17 to 35 percent. The mice also demonstrated improved health, as removal of the cells reduce the fat in several organs including the heart and kidney. Even better, the process didn’t seem to have any harmful effects.

“Since you can eliminate the cells without negative side effects, it seems like therapies that will mimic our findings — or our genetic model that we used to eliminate the cells — that drugs or other compounds that can eliminate senescent cells would be useful for therapies against age-related disabilities or diseases or conditions.”

Dr. Darren Baker, a molecular biologist at Mayo Clinic and first author on the study, was also optimistic about the implications of the research. He explained that the advantage of targeting the senescent cells is that even clearance of 60 to 70 percent can have big effects. Moreover, it would be quick and efficient.

Source: Baker D, Childs B, Durik M, Wijers M, Sieben C, Zhong J, et al. Naturally ocuring p16Ink4a-positive cells shorten healthy lifespan. Nature. 2016.