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Running a marathon halts cell death

[18/5 NOTE: I don't really understand this study. See the comments below -- and help out if you can!]

Researchers from the University of Rome just published a study in the journal BMC Physiology in which they analyzed blood samples from 10 recreational runners before and after completing a marathon (press release here). The chief finding:

Apoptosis, the natural ‘programmed’ death of cells, is arrested in the aftermath of strenuous exercise. Researchers… studied peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), isolated from whole blood samples taken from people after finishing a marathon, finding that the balance between expression of pro- and anti-apoptotic genes is shifted after the race.

The idea that exercise helps your cells live longer has been in the news recently (see, for example, Gretchen Reynolds’ piece on telomere length in the New York Times a few months ago). This appears to be another piece of the puzzle — though a marathon is a pretty intense bout of exercise, so you have to wonder whether you’d get similar benefits from a shorter workout.

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  1. May 18th, 2010 at 11:46 | #1

    This one is tough to interpret on the surface, at least for me. Wikipedia says apoptosis is generally a good thing. All those sirtuins regulating up and down… what does it mean? We don’t see many studies arguing for marathons as a big health boost. Much more evidence for the moderate stuff. Anyone else have any insight on how to read this study?

  2. alex
    May 18th, 2010 at 23:02 | #2

    @Amby Burfoot
    I’m with you, Amby: I had a tough time trying to work out what the main message of this study is. Probably a good reminder about the risks of posting about studies that I don’t really understand! :)

    On the one hand, the press release seemed to be spinning the results as good news:

    Speaking about these results, Marfe added, “Sirtuins may play a crucial role of mediators/effectors in the maintenance of skeletal and cardiac muscle tissues as well as neurons, thus explaining the synergic protective effects of physical exercise and calorie restriction for survival and ageing”.

    But the journal article itself is much more opaque (partly because they don’t provide any context, and partly, I suspect, because of language issues). They don’t mention anything at all about survival or aging. My wife (a med student) agrees with Wikipedia that apoptosis is generally a good thing (as opposed to necrosis, which is basically unplanned cell death).

    So, yeah — anyone with any insights, please post ‘em! The journal article is open access, so you can read the full paper from the link above. It’s quite a page-turner.

  3. Phil Koop
    May 19th, 2010 at 18:58 | #3

    A less roseate possibility is that apoptosis is delayed because the resources necessary for cell replacement have been diverted to repair exercise-induced damage.

  4. May 21st, 2010 at 04:35 | #4

    Apoptosis can be good or bad – it’s controlled, so it’s on purpose, but it could be a response to something bad. There’s a lot of interest in preventing apoptosis, and/or preventing situations that end in apoptosis, because the first step in getting old is not dying. :)

    It sounds like they think they’ve figured out part of the apoptosis pathway, which is certainly good to know. Even if apoptosis is delayed but still inevitable for certain cells, it might be useful, in some future treatment or other, to “pause” the apoptotic pathway.

  5. alex
    May 21st, 2010 at 22:05 | #5

    Thanks for the insight, Beth — nice to get some context from someone with bio cred! That seems reasonable. Here’s my attempt at an analogy: cleaning your clothes is good (my friends tell me), but cleaning them too frequently hastens their demise…

  6. José Luis
    May 23rd, 2010 at 19:18 | #6

    Apoptosis in the context of life span is indeed a ”bad thing”, so there is a valuable profit in excercise induced- cell death delay.

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