500 is the New 20? | The Secret to Living Longer and Healthier
So there I was on a Saturday morning, casually watching a show I found on Netflix. It was about a 500-year-old man (who, by the way, looked like he was around 20) and yet had the same physical capabilities as someone who was 20. He was healthy, strong, and, besides the fact that he could fly and heal people of any illness with his blood, he was a normal person.
The doctor studying his case mentioned that he had an abundance of a protein called telomerase, which allowed his cells to replicate their DNA more accurately.
Naturally, being as curious as I am, I immediately had a million questions. I wanted to learn more about this protein and how it actually works. I was interested to see how we could lengthen the amount of time that we spend being healthy (healthspan) as we age, leading to a longer lifespan. (Yes, I’ll admit that I was also curious to check out the possibility of gaining the ability to fly.)
And, it turns out, the whole process is a little more complicated than they made it out to be on TV.
Aging is Caused By the Shortening of Telomeres
The first thing I had to understand was why we age in the first place, and why that causes our bodies to become weak. There are actually many reasons, but the one I’ll be focusing on is DNA damage.
Every time our cells replicate, they also have to copy the DNA that’s within them. At the end of each strand of DNA are telomeres that protect important genetic information from getting lost during the replication.
A common analogy used to explain this process is the way shoelaces work. At the end of each shoelace is a cap that prevents the lace from becoming frayed and messy. This is similar to telomeres. The telomeres help prevent DNA strands from getting damaged so that our cells can function normally.
The only problem with this is that as we get older and as our cells continue to divide, our telomeres get shorter.
Without telomeres, the cells eventually stop dividing, and they have two options:
- Become a zombie.
As the telomeres become shorter and shorter, more of the cells stop dividing and die, which can lead to the degeneration of tissues and organs. This is why, as we age, different parts of our body don’t work as well as they should.
However, some of the cells become senescent, or “zombie.” cells that have no purpose in our bodies. These types of cells can accumulate in our bodies as we age, and can actually secrete factors that cause damage to other cells, leading to age-related diseases. This limits our body’s ability to remain healthy or continue with normal processes.
Either way, both of these options contribute to aging, and, eventually, death.
We grow sick, however, because the lack of telomeres in our bodies during old age leaves our DNA out and exposed, making us more vulnerable to mutations.
Luckily, our bodies already have a natural defense mechanism against the shortening of telomeres. Yup, you guessed it. Telomerase. Telomerase is a protein within our body that maintains the length of our telomeres. But it’s actually appeared within our body in strange ways.
The Process At the Molecular Level
Telomeres are made up of the DNA sequence 5’-TTAGGG-3’. This sequence is repeated thousands of times. The number of repeats is what dictates the length of the telomere. Telomerase is able to maintain the length of the telomeres by synthesizing (essentially, adding) very short DNA sequences “GGTTAG” onto the ends of the chromosomes. This comes from an RNA template that the telomerase protein contains inside of it.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Great! All we’ve gotta do is make more telomerase and we can live forever!
Unfortunately, our bodies don’t seem to really want that.
Research has shown that telomerase actually has a brake system embedded within it that stops the DNA synthesis from continuing to occur. The 5' boundary attached to the telomerase template is literally safeguarded by a bunch of pause signals so the telomerase stops replicating.
Further study of telomerase has led to the discovery of several ways to bypass this block signal and consequently increase the length of telomeres.
Using the Chemical 4-OHT
In a study led by Ronald DePinho, a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, mice were tested to assess factors that could slow the aging process. DePinho’s team fed the mice a chemical called 4-OHT and found that all the aging that had been done was literally reversed! The mice’s organs were regenerated after a month of being fed the chemical.
Over Expression of Telomerase Can Cause Cancer
You know what they say: “Everything in moderation.”
When tested, telomerase proved to be highly effective in increasing the amount of times cells divided while also increasing the length of telomeres. However, it has been found that this continuous cell division can actually lead to cancer.
Think about it: if telomerase is meant to increase the length of telomeres, then cells can continuously divide for a longer amount of time. Unfortunately, this can lead to a build-up of cells, resulting in tumors.
In fact, cancers in humans have been linked to an overexpression of TERT (telomerase reverse transcriptase). So, in order to effectively use telomerase, more research has to be done to determine how we can prevent cancer from occurring due to telomerase.
The potential of telomerase is huge. Its ability to protect our DNA by lengthening our telomeres is honestly amazing, and, with more research, we could essentially cure aging. How awesome would it be to live for 500 years? Life would, for sure, be completely different. Maybe we wouldn’t have to spend so much of our lives being sick, either.
Although more tests still have to be done on humans to reach this potential, longevity research is growing fast.
I’ll say, even though telomerase doesn’t give us the ability to fly, the use of it for human longevity is, honestly, pretty cool, and I can’t wait to learn more.
Hold on… Don’t go yet!
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