Zombie cells that attack Alzheimer’s disease may lead to cure

Published: November 26, 2018 10:41 AM EST
Updated: November 26, 2018 6:06 PM EST

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently revealed she likely has Alzheimer’s disease, joining nearly five and a half million people who struggle with the disease.

While scientists are searching for drugs that will make an impact, so far, there is no cure. Now, researchers are watching so-called zombie cells to monitor the impact on Alzheimer’s.

“It’s tough,” Mary Lou Rodriguez said. “It is because I know what’s coming.”

Rodriguez was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after she started forgetting important dates.

“When I started noticing that I couldn’t remember, when are the kids’ birthdays, when is our anniversary?” Rodriguez said. “There’s something wrong.”

This former San Antonio city worker knows about Alzheimer’s. It took her sister, her mother and her brother.

 Mary Lou Rodriguez looks a memories in a photo album with her husband. Photo via Ivanhoe Newswire.

Mary Lou Rodriguez looks at memories in a photo album with her husband. Photo via Ivanhoe Newswire.

“Now I’m getting flustered when people throw too much at me at once,” Rodriguez said.

Patients like Rodriguez motivated this scientist to search for a cure. Miranda Orr, PhD, from UT Health San Antonio found what some are calling zombie cells: cells that accumulate in the tangles of the brain before the protein buildup that often signals the start of Alzheimer’s disease.

“My hypothesis was that maybe these tangles are becoming a zombie or entering a zombie-like state called senescence and becoming zombies like others had described,” Orr said.

These cells can kill the tissue around them. Orr started testing a drug on mice.

“The zombie cells have developed an armor that protects themselves from their own toxic compound,” Orr said, regarding his findings. “So what these drugs do is they disable their own armor and they kill themselves.”

Orr believes once the zombie cells self-destruct, this source of the disease is cleared from the tissue. A possible step toward someday, finding a cure.

Orr says when the zombie cells were taken out, diseased mice appeared to have healthier brains; also, inflammation was eliminated and the mice maintained normal brain mass. Orr says she has a vested interest in finding a cure: her own grandmother died at age 71 of Alzheimer’s.