Telomerase: Hacking your lifespan

Factorialist: Quest for immortality and telomeres

The old man’s lips crinkle into a smile as a tiny hand closes around his finger. As he looks at his skin, rough and wrinkled against the soft white skin of his newest grandchild, he reflects on how lucky she is to be born during a time of record-breaking life expectancy. Humanity has come a long way since the 1600s, when life expectancy was a meager 30 years, a thought that makes him chuckle; his fingers look like they could be from the 1600s! According to the World Health Organization, worldwide life expectancy is now 71 years, with the USA at a record high of 79 years. Now at the wise age of 72, he considers buying a Ferrari while he still can, but also finds himself scouring the Internet for a cure for aging.

He reads about an enzyme called telomerase, and its potential to increase lifespan by increasing or maintaining the length of telomeres. It sounds pretty promising, or at least it would if he had any idea what a telomere was. Briefly, telomeres are protective caps on the end of our chromosomes. With every cell division a bit of telomere is lost, until eventually they’re too short for cell division and the cell dies. This is one of the important biological limits that causes aging, but if telomerase can be used to extend telomeres in human cells, then this limit on cell division, and therefore lifespan, can theoretically be increased.

Telomeres
 

A 2012 study that used telomerase gene therapy on mice reportedly extended their lifespan by 24 percent, but what about us humans? More recently, researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine reported in 2015 that they were able to lengthen telomeres in human cells by up to 10 percent, or 1000 nucleotides. They accomplished this by using a modified type of ribonucleic acid (RNA) that contained the active component of telomerase. Human skin cells that were treated with this modified RNA divided up to 28 more times than cells that weren’t, while human muscle cells divided up to 3 times more. Using this brilliant new method, they have succeeded, at least on a cellular level, in what was once considered impossible, turning back the clock. Yet, while this might make the scientific community put on their party hats and dance around in celebration, the general community, along with our friend the old man, want more.

Just give us the drugs

Drugs that claim to extend life by activating telomerase and extending telomeres are already a commercial reality. One such drug is marketed as TA-65. Manufactured by TA Sciences and distributed by RevGenetics, its function relies on the plant-derived active molecule cycloastragenol, which activates the enzyme telomerase, which helps rebuild telomeres. Amazon offers TA-65 for only $474 for 90 capsules.

But TA-65 is a controversial pill. While there’s a theoretical basis for its function, there’s no concrete proof that it works, and TA-65 has been the subject of lawsuits for potentially misleading claims. Yet there are studies that indicate TA-65 works. A 2013 study by RevGenetics researchers confirms that TA-65 is a functional telomerase activator. An earlier study confirmed that the supplement extends telomere length in cells from mice. It’s easy to miss that these studies are conducted by people who will profit from the drug, and it’s easy to feel hope when faced with your own mortality. And realistically, truly rigorous trials of a drug like this would take generations. Besides, what’s the harm? Right?

Sadly, while the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2014 recognized TA-65 as generally safe in terms of toxicity, there are concerns that telomerase activation may increase the risk of cancer.

Nobody likes the C-word.

“Approximately 90 percent of human malignant tumors contain active telomerase”tweet

Approximately 90 percent of human malignant tumors contain active telomerase, allowing them to reproduce in an uncontrolled, dangerous way. Research into whether telomerase can be blocked within cancer cells to slow down growth is ongoing, so activating this enzyme in healthy cells sounds a little risky. It’s also possible that the enzyme telomerase is naturally absent in most human cells as a protective mechanism to repress the uncontrolled growth of cells in the first place. But that doesn’t seem to bother the old man; faced with the looming end of life, the increased risk of cancer feels like an acceptable one.

Years later the old man falls asleep, his head full of memories of his granddaughter’s first birthday and joyrides in his new shiny Ferrari. On his bedside sits a small white bottle of pills marked TA-65. While doubts and fears remain about current treatments, extending our telomeres might one day prove useful in extending our lives, and let’s face it, we’re all hoping for that.

Factorialist: Quest for immortality and youth