Telomeres are starting to emerge from the labs of molecular biologists and the dreams of visionary entrepreneurs. Two years after a trio of telomere researchers won a Nobel Prize, word is spreading that this once-obscure structure—the protective cap at the ends of our chromosomes—is not only a breakthrough biomarker of aging but a pivotal piece of the aging puzzle itself.
The long and short of telomeres is just that: They get a little shorter every time a cell divides, and eventually they become critically short—at which point the cell can no longer replicate itself and keep the body healthy and vital. That’s aging in a nutshell.
In the last few months, several major magazines have published articles about telomeres and the promise of compounds that activate telomerase, the enzyme that maintains their all-important length. Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, two popular monthlies aimed at readers who want to stay youthful, highlighted the telomere story on their covers, a sign that telomeres and telomerase activators (TA) are starting to go mainstream. It’s also caught the attention of Popular Science, which recently profiled Bill Andrews, the molecular biologist whose team at the California biotech company Geron discovered the first telomerase activator, now marketed as TA-65.
“The New Youth Pill,” Harper’s Bazaar announced on its Lady Gaga-adorned October cover. The story inside described TA-65, a compound derived from astragalus, an ancient Chinese herb that is a potent anti-oxidant. TA-65 was discovered by the researchers at Geron in the course of screening thousands of natural compounds for telomerase activity. The compound was licensed by Noel Patton, a New York entrepreneur who formed a company, TA Sciences, to market it as a nutritional supplement through specialized medical practices, including PhysioAge.
“Many signs of physical aging can be attributed to shortened telomeres, so restoring them could potentially turn back the clock,” Harper’s Bazaar reported, adding: “In the future, testing telomere length may be as common as testing your cholesterol”—an observation borrowed from Dr. Raffaele, who made that prediction in an article on the PhysioAge website earlier this year.
Dr. Raffaele is working with TA Sciences on the first clinical studies of the potential benefits of TA-65. He recently conducted an observational study of 114 PhysioAge patients, collaborating with Bill Andrews and two other eminent telomere biologists, Calvin Harley and Maria Blasco. The patients took TA-65, along with the individualized regimen of nutritional supplements they were already taking under the PhysioAge program. After one year, Dr. Raffaele and his colleagues found a decrease in the number of critically short telomeres as well as improvements in aspects of the patients’ immune systems. They published the results in Rejuvenation Research in December 2010.
Dr. Raffaele was interviewed for the Elle article, a lengthy piece that stands as the most in-depth look at telomeres in the popular media to date. The writer, Joseph Hooper, recounted the work of the three researchers who shared a Nobel Prize in 2009 for unlocking the secrets of telomeres, and how their discoveries sparked a race to develop telomerase activators that might lengthen healthspan, and maybe even lifespan. According to Hooper, many researchers think that delaying the diseases of aging so you “look and feel great until you hit the same old longevity wall of 90 or 100” is a goal “within our grasp.” And some think it’s possible that people alive today could see the day when maximum lifespan is expanded to upwards of 150 years.
Dr. Raffaele is among those who regard telomerase activation as the single most exciting development in age-management science. “We’ve got a perfect storm,” he told Hooper. “We have a way to measure telomere lengths, we have a massive amount of data about their importance in chronic dieseases of aging, and now we have interventional studies.”
A Canadian company, Repeat Diagnostics, was the first to develop commercial testing for telomere length, and Texas-based Spectracell later joined the field. For the patient, it’s no different from any other blood work. The cost is now around $300 but it’s been dropping as the field expands. One company now ramping up is called Telome Health. It was co-founded by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, one of the scientists who won the Nobel Prize for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and how telomerase maintains their length.