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All about telomeres, telomerase and aging

Written By: The Serum Guru

Excerpts from an article from the London Times on telomeres, telomerase, and a new book recently published titled, "The Telomerase Revolution."

Telomerase activation just might lead to cures for ageing itself
Apart from your germ cells and some stem cells, all the other cells in your body shut down their telomerase genes, with the result that their telomeres get shorter with each cell division. Age is not the accumulation of wear and tear; it’s the shortening of telomeres, leading — we are still not entirely sure how — to a slowdown in the rate at which damaged molecules are repaired which in turn leads to a greater number of damaged cells.

An analogy may help. My mobile phone currently has a cracked front; I’m living with that till I am next due an upgrade. If upgrades come round quickly, most mobile phones are in good order. If they come round more slowly, more people have damaged mobile phones. As you age, your cells upgrade their molecules more slowly, because their telomeres are shorter. So there are more damaged cells.

What startles me about Dr Fossel’s book is his evidence that this phenomenon explains all the chronic diseases of ageing, even ones such as dementia. Until recently, it was thought that these diseases could not be linked to telomere shortening because they involve cells that do not divide: neurons, for instance. But we now know that other cells called microglia, which do divide, are crucial to the functioning of neurons. A similar argument applies to heart cells and the cells that line arteries.

In 1999 scientists working for Geron, a biotech firm, demonstrated that adding telomerase could reset the clock of ageing and rejuvenate a cell. They went on to show that they could take skin cells from an old person, treat them with telomerase, and grow skin typical of a young person. All it takes now, says Dr Fossel, is to work out how to boost telomerase in our cells in a safe way. Not a trivial problem, but probably not an insuperable one, in the rapidly advancing state of gene therapy.

Dr Fossel has founded a company, Telocyte, to try this approach for people with Alzheimer’s. He may not succeed, but if somebody does, the implications are profound. Suppose people could take a course of pills or injections to reverse dementia, Parkinson’s, heart disease or osteoporosis. Suppose that people in their nineties could live genuinely “healthy” lives, as if they were fifty, not the managed decline that the WHO report recommends.

In such a world, the costs of treating chronic diseases of old age, and of social care for the elderly could fall. The problem of an ever-smaller working population supporting an ever-growing population of the infirm elderly could disappear, as 90-year-olds went back into full-time jobs. On the other hand, the decline in world population growth — with a stable level expected by 2080 or so — might eventually reverse, creating another population boom.

Fanciful? Maybe, but given what we now know about telomeres, and the mechanism that lies behind ageing, it is not as mad as assuming the world will continue as it is. The WHO’s vision of a world in 2050 in which governments are devoting much more money and effort to making people comfortable in nursing homes as they live with chronic dementia, disability and decline may well be even more implausible. The future is not just a straight-line extrapolation of the past.

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