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Telomeres - the Long and the Short

Telomeres are an essential part of human cells that affect how our cells age. Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Without the coating, shoelaces become frayed until they can no longer do their job, just as without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and our cells can’t do their job.

Every time an adult cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. Eventually, the cells are unable to reproduce anymore, becoming senescent, and aging ensues. The discovery of telomeres and their role in cell aging in the 1980s earned the investigators a Nobel Price in 2019.

This discovery led to extensive research on the role of telomeres in aging in animals. There are also companies developing telomere-lengthening products as an anti-aging solution, including a controversial gene therapy that was claimed to have lengthened the telomeres of a US CEO. However, according to Joachim Lingner, a researcher at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne, this approach is risky.

I think many companies claim they can manipulate telomere length,” he explained. “But these drugs have not been really thoroughly tested and I have serious doubts that they actually have any effect.

Another big risk of playing with telomere lengths is the development of cancer, where cells replicate out of control. Shortening telomeres limit the number of possible replications, so paradoxically, this mechanism may be keeping us alive for longer. But the majority of cancers dodge this mechanism, meaning this avenue could be exploited to make new drugs treating cancer.

Lingner’s research group studies the molecular machinery underlying telomeres and their function. The group then aims to compare the telomeres of healthy cells with those of cancer cells.

The group has collaborated with Boehringer Ingelheim to screen potential treatments targeting telomeres, but Boehringer dropped the collaboration. “My attempts to have companies interested in this technology were in fact rather frustrating — I basically gave up,” Lingner told me.

In spite of the limited commercial interest so far, Lingner’s group continues the quest to illuminate the complex telomere system in healthy cells and cancer.

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