Last fall, Harvard University scientists reported that partial reversal of age-related degeneration in mice had been achieved for the first time. The study was conducted by engineering a controllable telomerase gene.
The results showed new brain and testes growth, improved fertility, and return of lost cognitive function. OK, how do I sign up?
The telomerase enzyme maintains the protective caps (“telomeres”) that shield the ends of chromosomes. By using the telomerase gene therapy, the Harvard scientists were able to lengthen the telomeres.
Other studies have suggested that telomere shortness in humans is a prognostic marker for disease risk and aging progression. In a related development, a U.S. laboratory is offering the first commercially available telomere analysis in the U.S. This story was featured recently on NBC’s the Today Show (video clip follows below).
Let’s take a closer look at these two fascinating new studies “of mice and men.”
Harvard Study of Mice
The Harvard researchers first genetically manipulated the mice to age faster; then they used the telomerase gene therapy to lengthen telomeres. Results showed reversal of age-related problems, like brain disease and infertility.
“We at best expected it to be a slowing of the process or perhaps an arresting of the process. We did not anticipate that it would be so dramatic a reversal in all of the problems that the animal was experiencing,” said Dr. Ronald DiPinho, a lead researcher. “We were so struck by the findings that we rushed to get the study published.”
They found that restoring the enzyme not only stopped aging but revived failing organs and even restored dark fur to mice who had turned grey. (The study didn’t include bald mice, so there are no implications for hair loss.)
DePinho observed that the mice — 80 to 90 “human” years old — returned to the equivalent of middle age. May I repeat… how does this 82-year-old sign up for the first trial on humans?
The brains of the forced-aged mice were only 75% normal size, similar to the brain of a human with Alzheimer’s. When researchers boosted the telomerase, brains returned to normal size.
Other Studies of Telomeres and Aging
Scientists have known for years that as a cell ages, its telomeres shorten. Eventually, the telomeres become too short to allow cell replication. As a result, the cell stops dividing and eventually dies: the aging process.
More recent studies suggest that telomere length may be a good health barometer. Studies have also shown that telomeres are the only part of the genome that can be altered by life style choices. Stress in particular seems to be a culprit, actually shortening telomeres.
Testing Telomere Length
A telomere test can measure the length of the telomere and compare it to your chronological age. Proponents of the test boast that it measures not only cell aging, but also general health, disease risk, and the body’s possible response to drugs.
Spectracell Laboratories is the only lab in the U.S. that offers the test ($290). You can locate a clinician and a testing site in your area: http://www.spectracell.com/telomere-testing/
I plan to try this out; stay tuned.
Last week, the Today Show ran a series “How to Live to 100” and telomere testing was featured in one of the segments. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the show’s health correspondent, played guinea pig: