Health Watch: Zombie Cells Attack Alzheimer's

SAN ANTONIO, TX -- 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. It is because I know what's coming," said Mary Lou Rodriguez.

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? There's something wrong," said Rodriguez.

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

"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," said Orr.

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

"The zombie cells have developed an armor that protects themselves from their own toxic compound. So what these drugs do is they disable their own armor and they kill themselves," Orr stated.

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.