Are long telomeres better than short ones?
What about older folks lengthening their telomeres somewhat or stabilizing the length? Could this counter aging?
As with many things, the story is far more complicated than we might hope.
For background, telomeres are special structures protecting the ends of chromosomes.
I remember as a young student that I loved the idea of telomeres protecting the ends of chromosomes. Then the sense that they get shorter and shorter over time, correlating with aging made sense too.
Long telomeres to lengthen life?
At first, later on it also kind of made sense to me that lengthening telomeres might fight aging.
This idea has been fabulously popular.
So much so that there is an industry built on selling this idea. This includes through measuring telomere length to estimate biological age. Some firms also pitch telomerase supplement products that are supposed to increase telomere length and so be good for health as a result.
However, the anti-aging side of telomere length is often seriously oversimplified.
Hyper-long telomeres led to disease and death
One of the big stumbling points conceptually here is that cancer cells also have very long telomeres. Some cancer cells are effectively immortal, which often relates to their unique telomere biology.
This means that if you lengthen someone’s telomeres then you may be increasing their cancer risk.
Now new research published in NEJM shows that things often go badly health-wise in people with exceptionally long telomeres. Gina Kolata covers the new research in a nice article over at the NYT entitled, Link Between Long Telomeres and Long Life Is a Tall Tale, Study Finds.
It turns out that people with mutations that confer super long telomeres often have many health problems. They don’t live longer than people with average telomere length.
In fact, four died just during the two years of the actual study.
No free lunch on telomeres
The NEJM paper, Familial Clonal Hematopoiesis in a Long Telomere Syndrome, is very sobering. Just on the cancer side, the long-telomere group had many diverse tumors.
Yet even now we see people pushing the “a longer telomere must be good” idea like in the Tweet below.
Telomeres are protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. Restoring telomeres through telomerase gene therapy is like putting tread on your tires.#biohacking #biohacker #bioviva pic.twitter.com/jZyGR9Rdxm
— Liz Parrish MBA (@ParrishLiz) May 5, 2023
That analogy isn’t helpful.
Kolata quoted Elizabeth Blackburn, an emerita UCSF professor who won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of telomerase, “there’s no free lunch” on telomere length.
Another take-home from Blackburn was “Long telomeres are not the secret to eternal youth.”
There are going to be risks to lengthening telomeres.
Trials & telomerase supplements like Vivix
Still, the NEJM article isn’t the end of the story.
It’s possible that people with moderately long telomeres might fare better than those with extremely long ones.
Or perhaps if there was a way to stabilize normal telomere length that’d be positive as we age without increasing cancer risk.
I found 22 trial listings on telomerase and aging on Clinicaltrials.gov.
What about the telomerase supplement industry?
It’s hard to tell if there could be any benefit there and to me anything that impacts telomeres could have risks.
Surprisingly, Dr. Blackburn herself partnered with supplement producer Shaklee. They sell an anti-oxidant telomerase supplement Vivix that is intended to keep telomeres long.
They do report some preliminary data related to Vivix, but I’m not sure what to think of it. I didn’t find any papers mentioning Vivix on PubMed and Clinicaltrials.gov listings.
In the end it all comes down to having good data on any of these ideas including the new clinical trials.
Much of the data out there on aging is in mice, which may not be that relevant to humans. Mice and humans have very different telomeres in some ways.
Overall, we just don’t know yet how changing telomeres in major ways in people could impact aging and health.