What are telomeres, one of the keys studied by scientists to understand aging
March 27, 2018
Telomeres are like the protective shields of our cells’ DNA.
Its name, of Greek origin, literally means «final part», and that is that the telomeres are that: the ends of the chromosomes, something similar to the plastic tips of the shoelaces.
But they are very repetitive and non-coding parts of DNA: their main function is to protect the genetic material that carries the rest of the chromosome.
As our cells divide to multiply and to regenerate the tissues and organs of our body, the length of the telomeres is reduced, and therefore they become shorter over time.
When finally the telomeres are so small that they can no longer protect the DNA, the cells stop reproducing: they reach a state of old age or old age.
Therefore, the length of telomeres is considered a key «biomarker of aging» at the molecular level, although it is not the only one, and in recent years it has attracted the attention of numerous researches.
How much do our telomeres measure and how fast do they deteriorate?
The length of the telomeres is measured in «base pairs», which are the opposite and complementary nucleotide pairs that are connected by hydrogen bonds in the DNA chain.
The length of telomeres varies widely among different species.
In the case of humans, the length of the telomeres deteriorates from an average of 11 kilobases at birth to about 4 kilobases in old age.
Can you «intervene» on telomeres?
In 2009, three American researchers won the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work on cell aging and its relationship to cancer.
Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak investigated the telomeres and discovered that the telomerase enzyme can protect the chromosomes from aging: it can cause the telomeres to regenerate, it can prolong them.
This enzyme helps prevent telomeres from shrinking with cell division, which helps maintain the biological youth of cells.
Much of the research on telomeres has nothing to do with an aesthetic aspiration of longevity, but with the potential cure of diseases.
The Spanish María Blasco, who worked in the United States with Greider, is now the director of the Telomeres and Telomerase Group of the National Center for Oncological Research of Spain.
Blasco led the development of a new technique that blocks the ability of glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive brain cancers, to regenerate and reproduce, precisely by attacking the telomeres of cancer cells.
In tests with mice, his team managed to reduce the growth of the tumors and increase the survival of the animals, something that could open the doors to potential treatment alternatives in humans.
But Blasco and his team are still investigating with strategies in reverse, according to Gabriela Torres, of BBC Mundo.
They aspire to activate telomerase in such a way that they can cure people who are dying of rare diseases due to genetic mutations associated with very short telomeres.
Do they keep the secret to make us younger?
But stopping the aging of cells does not necessarily have an anti-aging effect on the whole body.
According to Dr. Carmen Martin-Ruiz, researcher on aging at the Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Newcastle, in England, the longer a person’s telomeres can be said, the «stronger is biologically».
When a person has the longest telomeres, it is because they have metabolic mechanisms that protect them, «the specialist told BBC Mundo.
«It’s like your body had better defense systems,» he explained.
But one of the current problems of scientific research in this field, according to this expert, is that there is no standardized and universal method to measure telomeres.
A recent study from the United States concluded that maternity shortened women’s telomeres more than tobacco or obesity, while another fact among Mayan women, smaller but with a «more robust» methodology, according to Martin-Ruiz, reached the opposite conclusion: that motherhood made women biologically younger, since their cells had longer telomeres.
Martin-Ruiz says that each laboratory uses different techniques and methodologies, which makes it difficult to compare studies and results because the calculations can be interpreted in many different ways.
So «the technical solidity of measuring telomeres is not as much as when you go to the hospital and they measure your glucose», concludes the expert.
In any case, there is a large community of scientists who are investigating different aspects of human aging, including telomeres, mitochondria, the shape of proteins and many other aspects of that process.
According to the BBC, Gordon Lithgow, a scientist at the Buck Institute, aging is all these things, it affects all the systems of our body.
An article of the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-43476972