Telomere shortening is a marker for cellular aging and is linked to our susceptibility to chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. Historically there have been two defining questions in telomeres studies: is there a connection between telomere lengths and our vulnerability to health risks associated with the aging process? Also, can people revise their lifestyles to lengthen their telomeres, and therefore increase their chances of staying healthy?
Elizabeth Blackburn, now a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and collaborators Carol Greider, along with Jack Szotak of Harvard Medical School in Boston, answered a resounding Yes to the first question when in 2009 they earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for solving the problem of how chromosomes can be copied completely during cell division and remain protected against degradation. The key, or rather caps, were to be found at the tips of chromosomes, where telomeres protect against cellular degradation. Telomeres, in turn, are maintained by an enzyme called telomerase, which can be activated by a combination of biological and environmental factors.
Blackburn’s work established a fundamental mechanism in cellular aging: When telomeres shorten, cells age. But if telomerase activity is high, and telomere length is maintained, cellular senescence is delayed.
In the many studies that followed, researchers aimed to find out if and how telomerase could be activated to stop premature cellular aging and to explore potential therapies that doctors can tailor for their patients to reduce their risk of developing age related illnesses.
William H. Andrews, PH.D., a DNA Telomere Researcher instrumental in the discovery of the enzyme telomerase, cites a 1997 research project in which he helped uncover the role of telomerase as a regenerative enzyme that can lengthen telomeres. Andrews currently works as a researcher at Isagenix, a company specializing in health products promoting healthy aging.
Something we might see in telomere research in the future is a booming industry for products that are designed to encourage telomere length in combination with other healthy lifestyle habits such as eating right and exercise. The bottom line, says Andrews, is that “We age because our cells divide and telomeres get shorter.” This premise has lead scientists and researchers working on telomeres today to ask yet another important question, “What kinds of products activate telomerase in a significant and healthy way?”