A telomere is technically a compound structure at the end of a chromosome. This means that telomeres cap the ends of our DNA strands, keeping them from fraying and sticking to other DNA strands, which is really important for keeping our DNA uniform over multiple cell divisions. Each time a cell divides the telomeres get shorter. Once the telomeres get too short the cell can no longer divide and it dies.
When we are young our telomeres are longer, allowing for more cell division before a cell dies, but as we age they get shorter.
Shorter telomeres can mean a shorter life span for cells; this causes aging. This is a very simple explanation for a very complex process, but hey, I’m a psychic social worker so I am doing my best.
Right now there is a lot of research going on looking for ways to keep telomeres from shortening during cell division in order to increase the lifespan of our cells, which could bring about cures to many diseases like diabetes, muscular dystrophy, and heart disease to name a few. It could also potentially contribute to an increase in the lifespan of humans. Sounds great, right?
Well, here’s the catch. There is one type of cell that has already overcome the problem of shortening telomeres. Cancer cells are able to render themselves basically immortal by producing an enzyme called telomerase. telomerase protects telomeres from shortening and allows for rapid and prolific cell division, thus the growth of tumors.
There is a quandary here.
We can’t just add telomerase to all of our cells and bring about immortality; that would potentially cause all kinds of cancer. We also can’t just block telomerase completely to cure cancer, which could cause infertility and problems with the blood and immune system. Reproductive cells produce telomerase, extending the lives of these cells, and keeping our species alive and reproducing.
Stanford University is doing some research that may give some hope for using telomerase in the short term to lengthen telomeres. The effects of the telomerase wears off after 48 hours, preventing cell over-growth and cancer. This technique has the potential of creating therapies for diseases like Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy.
What About Immortality?
Aging has multiple causes, telomeres are only one piece of the puzzle. Oxidative stress, which damages our DNA, contributes to aging. So does glycation, a process where glucose binds to DNA, proteins, and lipids and renders these cells useless. It is very complicated, there is no one thing that causes us to age or not, but one researcher does believe that lengthening telomeres could add 10-30 years to the human lifespan.
Dr. Richard Cawthon at The University of Utah has found that people with shorter telomeres tend to have a shorter life span. In his work he hopes to mass-produce certain types of human cells and transplant them in human subjects, for example, insulin-producing cells to treat diabetes. He proposes that if we could stop all of the contributing factors of aging humans could live as many as 1,000 years.
Is Telomere Extension Possible Now?
Yes, is the short answer. There are nutriceuticals like TA-65 and other experimental treatments. These can cause short-term telomerase production and are purported to slow the aging process by lengthening telomeres. However, it does potentially increase cancer risk, so therein lies the rub. Does TA-65 increase the lifespan while at the same time risk encouraging cancer cell growth? Maybe.
The whole “telomerase causes cancer” idea is much more complicated than that though. This is new research and it is too soon to tell, it may be that lengthening telomeres is actually protective against cancer. There is so much more we need to know before we can truly make an informed choice.
Why Do We Want to Be Immortal?
What’s so great about living to be 1,000, anyway? Some find life is so beautiful, so amazing, that they never want it to end. People fear the unknown and would prefer to stay in this existence because at least they know what to expect. Others believe that our souls are immortal, it is all about belief and perspective.
It is also about the experience. I live with a Primary Immune Deficiency: telomere/telomerase research may one day help me grow a functional immune system. Until then, I am okay with 80 years or so in this body. Maybe next time around I will get one that works a little better.
What About Ethics?
There are many issues here. Lots of research about telomeres and telomerase involve stem cells because stem cells produce telomerase, therefore have longer telomeres and live longer. There is much debate about stem cells and whether or not we should consider them living beings, are playing god, cloning humans, etc. There is also a big question about population control. If we live longer lives, how do we care for all these centenarians?
On the flip side, some say that aging is a disease like any other and that we have a responsibility to eradicate it. This is big stuff, right up there with “Why am I here” and “What happens after I die?” There is also the question Einstein asked himself after developing the atomic bomb, “Just because we can, does that mean we should?”
Is it possible that all that we experience through aging and illness brings wisdom and empathy? Does aging build character and depth that we would lose if we didn’t have to struggle? I watched both of my parents die of cancer. They experienced a lot of pain and loss of independence, loss of dignity. I can see how it would have been better for them to not have those experiences. However, they did not resent their illnesses.
They used their time to strengthen their relationships and express their love for everyone in their lives. I am continually inspired by their attitudes toward their disease and their unfailing belief that everything will be ok. Is death really so bad? Again, this is a question of perspective and belief.
What Do the Sages Have to Say?
At this point, we all know that meditation is beneficial for stress relief and brain function, but it turns out that it is also good for telomerase production and telomere lengthening. The University of California did a study, which has now been replicated several times, that shows that regular mindfulness meditation increases telomerase production.
It has also been found that participation in a support group that assists in processing difficult emotions increases telomerase production. People who experience psychological stress tend to have shorter Telomeres, but this can be remedied by meditation, group counseling, and service to others. Interesting that we know that helping others helps us feel better, but we now know that service literally changes our DNA.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It seems that there is much more to this whole telomere/telomerase issue than first thought. Immortality may be the goal of some, but many researchers are working on early cancer detection and understanding genetic disorders that have a telomere connection. Elevated telomerase levels in urine can be an early indicator of cancer. Changes in telomere length may even allow for the identification of developing cancer before it is detectable by more traditional means. There is so much being studied, telomere/telomerase research will be giving us food for thought and advances in medical treatment for a very long time.
The Final Say
I started out my research asking if Telomeres were the key to immortality. It is clear that simply lengthening Telomeres will not lead to immortality. Aging is a complicated process that researchers are still working to understand. It is also clear that understanding the function of telomeres/telomerase is key to all kinds of current medical breakthroughs and those on the horizon. There is more work to be done, but once again, our bodies, our DNA and our existence have proven to be complicated, beautiful, and beyond our control.