Conducted by Brian Duggan via email in August 2011
Brian Duggan: Can you please share with our readers a little of your background, and how you personally got interested in Telomere Science and its relationship with healthy aging?
Maria Blasco: After I did my PhD in Madrid, I was working at one of the leading Molecular Biology Institutes in Madrid, founded by Nobel Prize Lauretate Severo Ochoa. My supervisor, Dr. Margarita Salas, had the highest opinion of research performed at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York where she knew its Director, Bruce Stillman. Therefore, in the early nineties, when I saw that there was a new Junior Group, headed by Carol W. Greider, working with the enzyme telomerase, it was clear to me that I had to work in that Group.
Telomerase was known to control the replication of the ends of chromosomes. More over, telomerase had the potential to be important both for cancer and aging, two of the subjects of research that I was most interested in.
The mammalian telomerase enzyme was not yet isolated and that became my post-doc Project at Carol´s lab. I cloned one of the mouse telomerase essential genes, the telomerase RNA component (Terc), and made a knock-out mouse deficient in this gene. The knock-out mouse would serve to prove the role of telomerase in cancer and aging, as well as to prove whether telomerase was the enzyme that maintained chromosome ends also in mammals.
When I became an independent scientist, already back in Madrid, I therefore focused my research on the role of telomerase in cancer and aging using genetically modified mouse models.
In the course of the research carried out in my lab, we needed to develop very highly sensitive methodologies to detect small changes in telomere length in the mice (which have much longer and heterogeneous telomeres than humans). In this context, we developed High Throughput (HT)Q-FISH and “telomapping”. Both techniques can measure both average telomere length per single cell, as well as the abundance of very short telomeres, also per single cell. We knew from mouse genetic studies that it was the very short telomeres, rather than average telomere length, that caused chromosomal instability and aging phenotypes. HT-QFISH can be used in blood cells or any type of tissue cultured cell and telomapping can be used in any tissue sample (typically, paraffin sections), such as skin.
After publication of the papers describing these technologies we started to receive a lot of interest from pharmaceutical companies interested in measuring telomeres and that is how we also became interested in the relation between telomere length and health status in humans and founded Life Length, based on the two technologies which we spun out of the lab.
Brian Duggan: When it comes to the topic of telomere length testing, what is your sense of its ultimate importance in leading people to make healthier lifestyle choices, and thus to live longer and healthier lives?
Maria Blasco: From all that we have learned in my lab (and others) about the importance of telomere length, and in particular the very deleterious effects of very short telomeres leading to all sorts of pathologies in the mouse, it became for me of great importance to be able to monitor telomere length and the presence of short telomeres in humans. This indication of the speed of telomere loss for a given individual could be an indicator of the health status and health span of that individual.
In addition, there are more and more epidemiological studies showing that life habits can have important effects on telomere length, opening the possibility of influencing telomere dynamics and therefore health. Thus, to me it became obvious that there was much to discover about human aging and health by measuring telomere length in individuals.
Brian Duggan: What is your assessment of the value of some of the mean telomere length tests currently available in the US? And how would you contrast this with the value that one can derive from the Life Length test, both as a one time test, and if tested on an ongoing basis?
Maria Blasco: The difference between Life Length´s test and the other tests is the fact that Life Length’s tests are able to measure the abundance of very short telomeres on a per single cell basis. Therefore, the tests are extremely accurate and also are able to measure the short or potentially “dangerous” telomeres.
Brian Duggan: At the moment testing seems to be in its infancy. As you know some in the US are talking about having tests available soon, including with the ability to measure short telomere lengths, for a price point around $200 US. Do you foresee a reduced price point like this as making a huge difference in terms of public adoption, and do you think a similar price breakthrough may be possible for Life Length in the near future?
Maria Blasco: Currently, the Life Length test is done manually and it involves state of the art, very sophisticated confocal microscopy, which allows us to see and quantify the abundance of short telomeres. We are in the process of automating this technology so that we can process hundreds of samples at once, which will considerably reduce the price. So, I would say that by choosing the Life Length test you are paying for the quality and the sensitivity of a very novel technology, as well as for the very important information on the abundance of short telomeres, which other telomere tests do not provide.
Brian Duggan: You have written about the LifeLength test not being “deterministic”. And yet many media outlets seem to persist in trivializing or sensationalizing the test as an answer to the question “how long will you live” or even worse, as a “death test”. Do you think these mischaracterizations are dangerous or problematic, and if so, what do you think is the best way to clarify the public’s perception?
Maria Blasco: I imagine some Journals just want to sell more papers and using these inaccurate headlines, they can achieve this. I would argue that “good” reputed journals like “Science”, “Scientific American” and newspapers like “The New York Times”, “The Washington Post” have clarified this. Thus, the consumer should always contrast any information with good, reputed Journals/Newspapers with strong “scientific sections and specialized Journalists”.
Brian Duggan: What have you noticed about different cultures’ approaches to Telomere Science and testing. From your perspective in Europe, what can Americans and the US market best learn from the approach there?
Maria Blasco: We noticed interest from all over the World. That is clear. All cultures want to know about their degree of telomeric aging and health status.
Brian Duggan: Do you have plans to make the Life Length test available here in the US, and how soon?
Maria Blasco: We are currently performing tests for US citizens which are referred to us through their Doctors. Anyone that wants to do the test should contact Life Length through the webside: www.lifelength.com and will receive detailed information on how to proceed. In addition, we are planning to open Life Length offices in the USA and in Asia.
Brian Duggan: Have you personally had your telomere length tested, and what was that experience like for you?
Maria Blasco: Yes, I did and I consider that confidential information. For me it is like any other medical test which is indicative that something in your organism may be wrong. The big difference is that telomeres are not specific to any tissue or organ, they are indicative of the general health status.