Telomerase and Aging in the News Again, But Not For Any Good Reason

The social media communities and mainstream media have been abuzz over a recently released study on telomerase and aging in mice. For my part, I think that this is nothing more than a good example of the random and at times self-defeating way in which research is publicized and then catches the public eye. A short summary of the study is as follows:

At Harvard, they bred genetically manipulated mice that lacked an enzyme called telomerase that stops telomeres getting shorter. Without the enzyme, the mice aged prematurely and suffered ailments, including a poor sense of smell, smaller brain size, infertility and damaged intestines and spleens. But when DePinho gave the mice injections to reactivate the enzyme, it repaired the damaged tissues and reversed the signs of ageing.

You might look back into the Fight Aging! archives for a primer on the intersection of telomeres, telomerase, and aging. It's interesting stuff, but unfortunately this present research is being headlined as "scientists reverse aging in mice" - which is absolutely not what was accomplished. Reversing an artificially created accelerating aging condition by removing its cause is not the same thing as intervening in normal aging, and it will rarely have any relevance to normal aging. The study results are teaching us something about the way in which telomerase works in mouse metabolism, but I - and other, more qualified folk - are dubious as to the relevance to human aging:

The goal for human tissue 'rejuvenation' would be to remove senescent cells, or else compensate for the deleterious effects they have on tissues and organs. Although this is a fascinating study, it must be remembered that mice are not little men, particularly with regard to their telomeres, and it remains unclear whether a similar telomerase reactivation in adult humans would lead to the removal of senescent cells.

The bottom line is that it is really only worth getting excited over a study that shows extension of life rather than an un-shortening of life. It's all too easy to create short-lived mice and then make them less short-lived - hundreds of studies have achieved this result in one way or another. Also bear in mind that the media and public at large don't tend to seize upon one specific research result above another for any rational reasons. When it comes to what is shouted from the loudspeakers on a given day, it's all a matter of accident and marketing rather than facts and understanding. For example, you might recall that telomerase and p53 were used to extend normal mouse life span by 50% a few years ago - far more important and interesting than this present study, yet it received next to no attention.

The Harvard researchers responsible for the accelerated aging and telomerase study in mice we're discussing today will go on to look at extended longevity:

The team is now investigating whether it extends the lifespan of mice or enables them to live healthier lives into old age.

If they find some way to boost the normal life span of mice, then we might pay more attention. But for now the circus treatment is unwarranted.


While I agree this experiment isn't a true anti-aging experiment, I think you highly underestimate it's significance technically and the important attention it brings to the anti-aging field - especially research funding wise.

Technically, I would be very interested in the drug they used to switch back on the telomerase production gene in the mice. For sometime I have believed the focus on aged individuals in the study of longevity was a false path, because clearly the genetic commands that cancel the maintenance that allow the cascade of cellular damage events we collectively call aging - happens in our youth long before symptoms of aging are visually apparent. Most importantly, the experiment clearly demonstrates a relatively universal tissue response in switching telomerase production back on - and most especially the coordinated response of the immune system in eliminating and or rejuvenating damaged, senescent cells and in all probability eliminating cancer cells - not unlike a youthful competent immune system does.

Funding wise - nothing succeeds like success. Even the unfounded rumors of a gold rush speed up the production of picks and shovels, which are often then used to discover the only rumored gold.

In my opinion - much of anti-aging is far too academic and far too little focused on the areas that can provide encouraging results sufficient to maintain significant funding for creative and leading edge research. Successful results would not only encourage further funding, it would as well encourage the social planning (being totally ignored now) responsibilities that have to come with extended healthy life spans.

Posted by: Durwood M. Dugger at November 30th, 2010 4:05 PM

Even reversing abnormal aging is significant.
Some humans suffer from accelerated aging such as progeria, down's syndrome and other.

In the media the reporter said that it will be a long lime before extending telomeres can be applied to humans. So, you are right, there is nothing to get excited about yet.

This kind of research wouldn't attract a lot of funding. Private investors are looking for new treatments that can be applied to humans within a few years, because they want to have a quick return on their investments.

Stem cells wouldn't completely cure aging either.
Extracellular matrix and other proteins outside the cells are aging and they would have to be repaired or completely replaced.

Posted by: nikki at December 1st, 2010 10:37 AM

Perhaps from a scientific perspective the false hope and inaccurate outcomes portrayed in the mainstream press are disappointing. As a vehicle to foster interest in the field and a way to reach out to the masses however, it is these kinds of messages that open the public consciousness to the possibilities just beyond the horizon. I wonder how many Google searches on telomerase were initiated in the days following that story. For the many millions that have never read, and are unlikely ever to read a scientific journal, but who may potentially become an advocate for the field, if only amongst their friends and acquaintances, stories like this one are the bow wave.

Posted by: 2ndeffort at December 5th, 2010 5:41 AM

Sorry... but all of your findings are falls and against the Bible.... :p

Posted by: Pyar San Jose at January 16th, 2012 4:55 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.