The quest for human immortality is, by any measure, a daringly ambitious endeavour that has intrigued us all on some level. This age-old quest has been naively pursued by many individuals, perhaps most famously by sixteenth century Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, who believed he had stumbled upon vitality-restoring waters in what is modern day Florida. This supposed fountain of youth in St. Augustine, Florida, now serves as a playful archaeological park attracting thousands of eager tourists every year. But the advent of scientific inquiry has made it possible to explore some of our seemingly outlandish ideas in a manner that may result in actual solutions, and telomerase therapy may provide the solution to de Leon’s particular quest.
So what is telomerase therapy, and why should we take notice? To answer this question, we should first explore some background knowledge regarding basic cell biology. Telomeres protective caps covering the ends of chromosomes. They safeguard our genetic information through the series of divisions that cells may undergo. This protective cap progressively shortens with every cell-division cycle, leading eventually to biological aging (senescence), apoptosis, or cancerous transformation of somatic cells. In simple analogous terms, imagine telomeres as the lit fuse portion of a bomb. So how do cells avoid a catastrophic explosion? Does MacGyver heroically step in and save the day? Well, sort of; for the purposes of this analogy, the body’s MacGyver equivalent is telomerase. Telomerase is an enzyme that aids in lengthening telomeres, thus ensuring that cells can continue to divide. The main point to extrapolate from this is that shortened telomeres are in some way linked to the aging process.
If telomerase lengthens our telomeres thereby contributing to the idea of reverse-aging, then why are we not all lining up to get telomerase therapy? The answer may lie in the fact that nature has beat us to it and with rather unpleasant results in the form of cancer. Cancerous cells divide rapidly, so their telomeres shorten considerably as a result. To avoid cell death, these malignant cells activate the telomerase enzyme in order to continue division cycles. In other words, telomerase makes cancerous cells immortal.
This double-edged sword is difficult to overcome and is one of the many issues concerning telomerase therapy. Hope is not lost, however, because there are great insights that can be derived from the problem itself. Scientists are currently developing strategies that will target the gene that codes for telomerase in cancerous tumours. If the gene can be safely switched off then the cancerous cells will no longer be able to infinitely multiply. In the process, we may also gain useful information that may help us immortalize normal cells by modulating the telomerase gene in non-cancerous tissues. A recent study led by Maria Blasco utilized viral vectors (virus genes replaced with the telomerase gene), which extended the life span of one-year-old mice by 24 per cent. It is clear that the potential benefits on either front are tremendous and would serve as a defining milestone in medical science.
Aging comes at a significant cost. Mental and physical abilities deteriorate and we are usually left with a low quality of life. Shakespeare described old age as “hideous winter.” Telomerase therapy is often sensationalized and spoken of in terms of the aesthetic promises it may afford, but the real argument for continued research is that we may be able to find a way to live longer and healthier lives.