Time for Telomeres
Posted On Feb 17, 2017
Getting older is inevitable. Looking and feeling older? Not necessarily so.
Scientists may have found a way to actually reverse cellular aging, harnessing the miraculous potential of telomeres?.
The natural end of a eukaryotic chromosome composed of a usually repetitive DNA sequence and serving to stabilize the chromosome.
The longer your telomeres, the longer your lifespan.
Beyond the beveled glass of a private medical office, a woman nervously awaits her test results. Two weeks ago, she had her blood drawn; the sample was batched and couriered overnight to a sophisticated laboratory in Madrid. Today, she will discover how quickly she is aging.
The Spanish laboratory, called Life Length, is the only one in the world that tests a person’s “short telomeres.” Telomeres are the protective components at the end of each chromosome (think: the plastic on the ends of shoelaces).
Inevitably, telomeres shorten with each cell division as aging, diseased, or injured tissue in the body is replaced. Because of this, telomeres act as a biological timing mechanism. The longer our telomeres are, the longer our lifespan is likely to be. We’re born with long telomeres and the ability to create new cells by cell division. Over a lifetime— like the wick of a candle—they burn out. We start the aging process with each lost cell.
Imagine being able to determine how long you can live. Research into telomeres began as early as the 1930s. In 1984, biology professor Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and grad student Carol Greider identified an enzyme in a laboratory research. It was shown to restore the length of telomeres. The pair went on to earn a Nobel Prize for their pioneering work in telomere biology. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Bill Andrews—then with the Geron Corporation—discovered the human equivalent of this enzyme, known today as telomerase.
The next big news came when Harvard biologist Ronald DePinho successfully manipulated the biological age of mice. By decreasing levels of telomerase, DePinho caused premature aging. He then increased the telomerase levels, which proceeded to reverse these age-related changes. This restored the mice’s youthful appearance and behavior—restored coat luster, energy, and renewed sex drive. Perhaps most amazing: the size of their brains actually increased. In 2012, a study of 100,000 multi-ethnic individuals at Kaiser Permanente showed a direct correlation between telomere length and longevity.
The promise of telomeres: noticeably smoother skin and a reduction in wrinkles.
The same year, Dr. Maria Blasco, Director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Institute, injected mice with telomerase and found that they lived 24-percent longer. The implications of this development are astounding. Health and beauty researchers have long been obsessed with finding “a cure for aging.” The concept is the industry’s Holy Grail—a vague, elusive concept. Until now. While fillers, neurotoxins, scalpels, supplements, and hormone manipulation have allowed for significant stopgap measures, this enzyme appears to have the ability to stop—and perhaps turn back—time.
“The whole world is changing as we find the tools to alter the way telomeres control the genetic clock,” says Dr. Al Sears, an anti-aging specialist based in Royal Palm Beach, Florida. “From the time we discovered telomeres, we knew there must be a way to reset that clock. It’s an amazingly simple mechanism, like a computer marker.”
According to Dr. Sears, an understanding of telomeres has transformed our entire picture of genetics. “We used to think that when a cell replicates, the daughter was identical to the parent cell,” he says. “If you look in biology books, it still says that. But what we’ve found out is that the daughter actually has shorter telomeres, and this is how your body keeps track of how many times your cells have divided.” Dr. Bill Andrews maintains that an understanding of telomeres is the key to a host of long unanswered questions. “Nothing before explained why we age like we do,” he insists.
One piece of the puzzle that seems to fit is an understanding of how humans reproduce infants with new, youthful cells, even when our own cells have begun to age. “It turns out that sperm and egg cells are immortal, because their telomerase enzyme is turned on,’’ says Dr. Sears. Although every cell in our body has the ability to produce telomerase, this enzyme—for some unknown reason—is turned off as we reach adulthood.
When telomerase was first discovered, there was a fear among the science community that giving it to humans might incite cancer cells. Ironically, cancer cells are high in telomerase. But experiments have disproven this notion and instead shown that the enzyme can actually reduce tumors. “The shortening of telomeres is not only responsible for aging, but for almost every disease process,” maintains Dr. Andrews. “Telomere research is currently focused on reversing the aging process, as well as improving health. The length of telomeres actually controls the risk of almost every disease—from Alzheimer’s Disease to cancer.”
Those searching to cure dementia have been heartened by the increase in the brain size of those Harvard mice. Once the connection between telomeres and human degeneration was established, scientists set about finding a way to test the telomere lengths of an individual. Telome Health, a biotech company in Menlo Park, California, has tested average telomere length using saliva rather than blood. It will launch this test later this year. However, there is doubt about the reproducibility and clinical relevance of average telomere length.
While average telomere length may be indicative of biologic aging, it’s actually the percentage of critically short telomeres that determines vulnerabilities and disease risk, because they are the weakest links. When telomeres reach a critical level, cells become dysfunctional or die.
The good news is that scientists are also busy working to find a way to lengthen our telomeres. TA 65, discovered and patented by Geron and sold by Telemercise Activation Sciences, Inc. (TA Sciences), in New York City and Product B, released by Isagenix, are both plant extracts, now being marketed to improve telomere length through increased telomerase production. “The products currently available can only prevent telomere shortening,” says Dr. Andrews. “We’re looking for natural or synthetic products that will actually lengthen them.’’
According to Noel Patton, founder and chairman of TA Sciences—which has acquired the rights to TA 65—20,000 people are now taking the pill (derived from the Chinese herb astragalus). 600 doctors around the country are dispensing it, and an annual supply costs between $2,400 and $8,000, depending on dose. “TA-65 is the only proven telomerase activator on the market,” Patton insists. “We don’t do biopsies of people’s livers, hearts, and kidneys, but we do test blood,” he says. “People, followed for a year, had younger and stronger immune systems and their bone density and cognitive function increased, while blood pressure and cholesterol levels decreased. And, their shortest telomeres got longer. If telomeres don’t shorten, cells won’t die unless you hit them with a hammer or something.” Patton, 67, says he takes TA-65, himself. “I don’t look like a 30-year-old, but I look better and feel better,” he admits. “We don’t see people transform physically before our eyes, but we do increase their health span.”
In addition to products, there are lifestyle changes that can affect telomere length. It is commonly felt that genetics play a major role in aging and disease, although lifestyle choices—diet, exercise, toxic exposure, and stress—have a far greater impact on health, longevity, and telomere length. “A few tests have shown that people with obesity have shorter telomeres, while those who do intense endurance exercise have longer telomeres,” says Dr. Robert D. Willix. “There’s actually some evidence, though, that weightlifting may decrease their length.”
Stress, sleep, depression, pessimism, smoking, and consumption of sugar and alcohol are all thought to shorten telomeres. Meanwhile, there’s a list of foods and neutraceuticals thought to lengthen them. Chiefly, high fiber and low fat foods are lengtheners, along with a list of neutraceuticals including astragalus, omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamin D, folate B12, nicotinamide, ginger, alpha-tocopherol, N-acetylcysteine, red yeast rice, CoQ 10, and ginkgo biloba.
The beauty industry is also encouraged by telomere research, telomerase being particularly active in skin cells that turn over quickly. Diamond Life Infusion by Natura Bisse, the high-end skincare line from Spain, has been specially formulated to protect the ends of chromosomes. “We see this as a new frontier for the skincare industry, so we created a telomere shield with geranium extract,” explains Michael Ann Guthrie, the company’s VP of retail experience. “We can’t lengthen telomeres yet, but we can help protect and maintain their length.” The promised result: smoother skin and reduction in wrinkles.
Prolonged youth has long been considered a matter of science fiction, but it actually seems to be on the horizon, in a very real way. “There is a naturally occurring mechanism for immortality,” enthuses Dr. Sears. “To find it, we just need to turn off the aging mechanism.”