Unleashing “Immortality”

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Unleashing “Immortality”

For decades, the Trends editors have been closely monitoring the roller-coaster progress of anti-aging research. Now, two complementary technologies are converging to create the most promising therapy yet:

  • The first technology uses telomerase to stop, or even reverse, the aging process.
  • The second technology uses RNA interference to eliminate any potential cancer-related side-effects of telomerase therapy.

Recent breakthroughs in both of these areas are bringing the potential to extend human lifespans closer to reality much sooner than anyone expected.

First, some background: Telomeres are the caps that protect the DNA at the end of each chromosome. The word telomere comes from the Greek words telos and meros, meaning “end part.”

Telomeres have been compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. When cells divide, in a process called cytokinesis, the sequences of DNA at the end of each chromosome aren’t copied. That’s why telomeres are important.

Instead of some of the DNA getting cut off in the reproduction, some of the telomere is cut off. The DNA information remains intact, but the telomere becomes shorter in the next copy.

In young, healthy people, an enzyme called telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) replenishes the telomere, increasing its length so that it can protect the DNA when the process is repeated.

But studies have shown that as people age, telomerase stops replenishing the telomeres, which become shorter with each subsequent cell division. As a result, after about sixty copies, the cells stop dividing and die, which ultimately leads to disease and to aging.

At the same time, research has shown that cancer cells hijack the process. Whereas cells naturally stop dividing when they reach the limits of telomerase, in cancer cells telomerase continues to replenish the malignant cells, allowing tumors to grow.

Naturally, researchers have theorized that if they could activate telomerase in aging humans, the telomeres would continue to protect their chromosomes just as in younger people. But other studies have suggested that telomerase activation could cause an increased risk of cancer.

Therefore, if scientists could discover a way to manipulate telomerase, they would be able to turn it on to reinvigorate healthy cells, restoring youthfulness to aging people. Just as importantly, they would also be able to turn it off in cancer cells, preventing cancers from spreading.

Several recent advances have enabled researchers to make important strides in understanding how to control telomerase.

For one major research project, published in Nature Genetics, more than 1,000 researchers worldwide used blood samples from more than 200,000 people to map telomerase...

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