I didn’t know that there was an “immortality enzyme”! But there is an it is called telomerase.
What does it do? Here is the key idea – you need to understand a bit about chromosomes (from the above linked Forbes article).
To help protect the integrity of the chromosome, and to prevent the end of one chromosome from fusing into the next one, each chromosome is capped with a telomere, which is a series of repeated nucleotide sequences. In humans, this repeated sequence is TTAGGG. The average human telomere has thousands of these.
Got that? Here is the problem!
Every time a cell divides, the chromosomes are copied, but they aren’t copied all the way to the end. Consequently, telomeres gradually get shorter. In fact, we lose around 50 to 200 base pairs each time. In this way, they behave like a cellular countdown clock.
Yikes! And it can get pretty bad
As telomere length falls below a certain threshold – somewhere just shy of 4000 base pairs – you start getting problems, like a rise in pro-inflammatory signals and increased risk of cancer. Indeed, short telomeres are known to be involved in a number of diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.
The enzyme telomerase is able to add DNA back to add DNA back to telomeres and can extend the life of a cell.
Great! Why not just take telomerase pill? First, telomerase doesn’t work that way. Second, if your body has lots of working telomerase in places where you don’t want it, things can get ugly. Like in tumors. Indeed, That is one way that cancer spreads — by activating telomerase.
So this is complex stuff. And the first step in learning how to work with telomerase is to be able to understand how it works. To do that, you need to be able to see it.
And drum roll please!!! According to the Forbes article, now we finally have our first workable images.
So we have a chance to start blocking telomerase in tumors and switching it on in stem cells.
For those 90% of tumors with unchecked telomerase activity, blocking telomerase could be a good thing. Conversely, improving telomerase activity in adult stem cells may be able to slow down the ageing process. Blocking or activating telomerase indiscriminately comes with significant pitfalls, but there may be scope to alter telomerase activity under highly controlled conditions, like only in certain cells or only for certain periods of time. So it will be very interesting to see where this goes.
Go for it!