Can a single enzyme make cells immortal and stop the aging process? According to new research on the role of telomerase, a compound that protects DNA from degenerating, the answer may be yes. Although studies on telomerase reveal a complex picture of the role telomerase plays in cell health and replication, manufacturers of health and wellness supplements have embraced its potential for stopping and even reversing the aging process
Telomerase: Working Inside your Cells to Keep you Young
First discovered in the 1980s, telomerase appears to be the long-sought fountain of youth. This enzyme is activated during the process of cell division. Each chromosome contains a cap of DNA at its end, called a telomere. Every time a cell divides, its telomere shortens as the DNA is replicated again and again. Eventually the telomeres reach their end, stop dividing and begin to die. Telomerase prevents this loss of DNA in the replication process and ensures that all replications of the cell contain the full complement of DNA – in essence, making them immortal.
Telomerase is found in varying amounts, from the high levels occurring in fetal tissues to the relatively low quantities in the somatic, or body cells. Because the body’s somatic cells contain low levels of telomerase, these cells are especially vulnerable to the loss of DNA during replication, which leads to cellular aging, or senescence.
Low levels of telomerase has been linked to a variety of disorders leading to premature aging, such as progeria. Animal studies also revealed that adding telomerase appeared to reverse aging and restore functions lost to age. These studies led to the development of commercially produced telomerase activators made from substances such as the Chinese herb Astralagus membranaceus, which promise to activate telomerase production in cells and prevent their gradual degeneration.
How can Telomerase Prevent Aging?
The promise of telomerase is simple: if shortened telomeres mean cell death, then a compound that keeps them long should lengthen life and ensure cell stability indefinitely. But debates continue about the advisability of telomerase supplementation, fueled in part by findings about the role played by telomerase in the development of cancer cells.
Along with fetal cells, high levels of telomerase are also found in the cells of cancerous tumors and coronary artery blockages. Thanks in part to telomerase, cancer cells are capable of immortality – that is, they replicate endlessly without undergoing degeneration and senescence, which accounts for the difficulty in destroying them. Mutations in cell development may cause telomerase activity to be “turned on” in cancer cells, so research into the role of telomerase in cancer focuses on the development of anti-telomerase therapies that could prevent cancer cells from acquiring immortality.
Supplementing with Telomerase: Worth the Trouble?
Skeptics about the promise of telomerase supplementation as an anti-aging therapy point out that stimulating telomerase activity could cause or accelerate the development of cancer. Proponents of the use of telomerase to slow aging claim that doses are well tested and within the margins of safety. Research continues on the implications of manipulating telomerase activity both upward and downward for a number of health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease.
Sold as a supplement in capsule and liquid form, telomerase activators command prices upward of $200 per bottle. Although questions persist about the safety and efficacy of these compounds, research continues to confirm the basis for their claims: thanks to telomerase, cells can become immortal.
This article was written by James Huxtable, a researcher and author on telomerase and how it affects human aging. His current interest includes the telomerase supplement Telomerance as it has significant implications for human aging. Thanks for reading!