Geneticists have been all abuzz lately about telomeres, vital components of DNA strands which are thought to be related to both aging and the body’s tendency to develop cancer. While aging will probably never be ascribed to one singular cause, it does look like we should pay attention to the latest research on telomeres.
Many scientists have likened telomeres to the plastic ends of shoestrings. Just as the plastic keeps shoestrings from fraying, telomeres perform a similar function within strands of DNA. Each time a cell divides, the presence of telomeres prevents genes from being lost or malfunctioning. However, telomeres themselves do shorten each time the cell divides. Cells can only divide about 50 to 70 times, at which point telomeres are depleted, and then the damaged cell either dies or develops cancer.
Shortened telomeres have been associated with advanced age, though it is not yet known whether they are the cause of aging or simply another symptom. It is theorized, however, that preserving telomeres or restoring them where they are lost may be a way to prolong the average human lifespan. The ability to grow human cells with an unlimited lifespan could also lead to new treatments for a variety of health conditions, such as diabetes, transplants, burn victims, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, and more. The possibilities could be unlimited.
For now, geneticists are focusing their efforts on an enzyme called telomerase, which is found in reproductive cells. This enzyme helps to preserve telomeres throughout the rapid cycle of division found in sperm and eggs. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will ever start each day with a telomerase pill which helps us live to 1,000 years old. The process of aging is much more complicated than that, and it is widely accepted that there are several factors aside from telomeres – such as oxidative stress and glycation – that cause us to grow old and eventually die.
Telomeres are, however, likely to be a significant part of the puzzle. Once we identify ways to control all of the factors which contribute to aging, it is possible that the average human lifespan will increase dramatically.