Anti-ageing research points to the key to keeping us younger

| July 16, 2013 | 0 Comments
Carol Greider is a molecular biologist at John...

Carol Greider is a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University, who co-discovered the enzyme telomerase in 1984. For this work, she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak. Taken at Campus Westend of Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most promising avenues of anti-aging research comes from inside our own bodies: the telomere.

Is ageing a process that we simply have to accept as a fact of life?

A philosopher would say yes. Many doctors would also agree: our cells eventually reach a point where they can no longer divide and either die or reach senescence, or retirement phase. Scientists believe in the Hayflick limit (named after molecular biologist Leonard Hayflick,who advanced the idea of limited somatic cell division), which says no one can live past about 120 years.

De Grey believes a person has already been born who will live to 1000.

These people might also say that ageing and dying are a good thing; that the world is already overcrowded, that we already cannot handle our ageing populations, that life must be finite to appreciate it, that all good things must come to an end.

But an increasing number of people, including gerontologists, biologists, engineers and futurists, believe ageing is a disease, and one that can be cured. They believe ageing is not an immutable process, an inevitable ”dying of the light”, to quote poet Dylan Thomas, but one we can ”rage against” through science, drugs and lifestyle changes.

Since 1900, the average life expectancy has risen from 47.3 years to 78 years in the US, which is about a60 per cent increase. It is not unlikely to believe that scientists will be able to prolong healthy living rather than just ”life”. Gerontologists and others in the field are not concerned with prolonging end-of-life stages, when we are at our weakest, unhealthiest point (when healthcare often steps in too late).

Today’s search is for a longer and healthier life. It’s about turning back our biological clocks to be younger for longer. They believe in the ”longevity dividend”; that is, the economic benefits of extending healthy lives, including savings on healthcare and entitlements, and an increase in contributions to society.

Long and short of it: Telomeres, on the ends of chromosomes preserve genetic information.

In today’s popular scientific literature, many claim to have cures for ageing or ways to retard ageing. Some believe a kilojoule-restrictive diet can prolong lives. Oxford biogerontologist Auey de Grey, a leader of the anti-ageing movement, believes we can rejuvenate the body by repairing cellular and molecular damage. He believes that a person has already been born who will live to 1000.

In his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, futurist Ray Kurzweil writes about the science behind radical life extension, and investigates everything from diet and exercise to hormone and gene therapy.

Some of these people are considered on the edge of accepted science. Kurzweil, for example, takes more than 250 supplements a day, while de Grey has arranged to have his head cryo-preserved after his death so he can be revived. On the other hand, scientists in Scotland recently used a 3D printer to replicate emyonic human stem cells. So who is to say what is outrageous?

The cure within

One of the most promising avenues of anti-ageing research comes from inside our own bodies: the telomere.

Derived from the Greek nouns telos (end) and meros (part), these ”end parts” are at the tips of our chromosomes, serving as protective caps for preserving genetic information; think of them as acting like the plastic sheathsthat prevent fraying at the ends of shoelaces. The telomeres are disposable buffers blocking the ends of the chromosomes. Without them, genomes would lose information after cell division. A cell’s age can be measured by the length of its telomeres.

Telomeres also protect a cell’s chromosomes from fusing with each other or rearranging (abnormalities that can lead to cancer). When cells divide, telomeres shorten. When telomeres reach their shortest point, cells stop dividing or die. These senescent cells, some believe, cause age-related diseases, make us wrinkle, and weaken our immune and other systems.

In 2009, the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their 1984 discovery ”of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”. Telomerase is a protein that stabilises telomeres when they get worn, or causes them to lengthen and aids cell division.

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