Telomeres - the terminal caps of chromosomes - become shorter as individuals age, and there is much interest in determining what causes telomere attrition since this process may play a role in biological aging. The leading hypothesis is that telomere attrition is due to inflammation, exposure to infectious agents, and other types of oxidative stress, which damage telomeres and impair their repair mechanisms. Several lines of evidence support this hypothesis, including observational findings that people exposed to infectious diseases have shorter telomeres.
"Knowing whether our telomeres are a normal length or not for a given chronological age will give us an indication of our health status and of our physiological 'age' even before diseases appear," says Maria A. Blasco, who heads the Telomeres and Telomerase Group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center and who co-founded the company Life Length in September. Telomere research pioneer Calvin B. Harley, who co-founded Telome Health last spring with Nobel laureate Elizabeth H. Blackburn, considers telomere length "probably the best single measure of our integrated genetics, previous lifestyle and environmental exposures." Beginning as early as this spring, the companies will offer telomere-measurement tests to research centers and companies studying the role of telomeres in aging and disease; the general public may have access by the fall through doctors and laboratories, perhaps even directly.
I think that these initiatives are not so interesting in and of themselves, but should be considered as part of a powerful trend now underway. The marketplace for personal biochemical information supplied on demand, via mail and internet, will only grow as the underlying technologies become cheaper, more reliable, and possible to run at scale. One very desirable next stage in the evolution of this marketplace is to do away with the mail portion - the need to send samples in envelopes to a central processing location. The tools of analysis are becoming ever cheaper, and it won't be too many more years before it is cost-effective for most people in the developed world to produce raw data from their own biochemistries with desktop devices at home. The results will be sent over the network to be processed, analyzed, and matched against sophisticated databases owned by for-pay subscription services.
This vision will of course be fought against tooth and nail by the myriad entrenched interests in the command and control style medical systems of the Western nations - those who benefit from medical regulation at the expense of progress. These interests can't stop the internet, however, and nor can they regulate devices that connect to encrypted services outside the US. Distributed medicine, in which a great deal of the process of managing diagnosis and data collection rests with ordinary people, is the inevitable end result of falling costs in biotechnology and communication technologies. This is a good thing, and the sooner all opposed give up and go home, the better.