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Similar to the plastic tips of your shoe laces, telomeres are a protective cover for our DNA, short for Deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule containing vital genetic information and instructions used in the development as well as the functioning of living organisms and numerous viruses. Alongside carbohydrates and proteins, DNA is a nucleic acid with three macromolecules important for known life forms.
Cells replenish themselves by division and replication. This happens consistently throughout the lives of all living things, including humans. The telomeres of these cells become shortened each time that a cell divides and replicates, albeit the DNA remains intact. Telomeres eventually become too short to function optimally and cause cells to age, malfunction and, subsequently, die.
Why do Telomeres Become Shortened?
There are many factors why telomeres become shortened including stress, obesity, lack of regular exercise or physical activity, poor dietary habits, substance abuse, smoking, and excessive consumption of alcohol and pharmaceuticals. Telomere length is representative of a person’s biological age, the reason why short telomeres have been linked to the premature aging of cells.
The immune system, for instance, weakens as a person ages and becomes highly sensitive to the shortening of telomeres. Additionally, short telomeres were shown in a 2007 study to be associated with the decrease of bone mineral density in women. Simply put, when telomeres are not protected, our cells get damaged, deteriorate, age, and then die.
The Link Between Telomeres and Aging
There is a link between aging and the condition of telomeres. As telomeres get chipped away at a steady pace, they reach the Hayflick Limit, a process that marks the stoppage of normal cell division as the number of times that cells can correctly replicate themselves cease. Telomerase therapy can extend the human life span by re-lengthening telomeres.
This is according to Dr. Michael Fossel, a clinical medicine professor at the Michigan State University. The enzyme telomerase aids in the maintenance of telomere length and stabilization of chromosomes during division and replication of cells. With telomerase present, cells are able to replace bits and pieces of DNA and repair themselves to allow processing of healthy cells to divide.
Resetting the Human Genetic Clock
Still according to Fossel, this can reset the human genetic clock in healthy cells so their telomeres can re-lengthen and extend human life span. This means people can live longer than the present age limit of a hundred years with young and healthy bodies like those of 20-year-olds. Such therapy is possible with the use of Cycloastragenol, a compound derived from the Astragalus root.
This compound can help prevent or reduce the loss of telomeres in major cells of the immune system, a potential key weapon against viral diseases such as HIV. There is obviously an interest to find telomerase inducers to delay the commencement of cellular aging and cycloastragenol is currently being tested to see if it can enhance in vitro cell functions.
The stimulation of telomerase to increase telomeres is one possible natural method by which to increase the human life expectancy. Whether through introduction of activating substances like cycloastragenol or genetic manipulation, the maintenance of high telomerase levels is of importance to the scientific community and to the consumer public as well.
The Debate on Telomerase in Dietary Supplements
Because of the recent developments regarding this compound, the telomerase enzyme is now being marketed as TA-65 and touted as the fountain of youth by some. As a dietary supplement, it claims to do have the capability to stimulate telomerase production. According to Dr. John Rush who runs the anti-aging clinic Cenegenics in Washington, D.C., this new supplement “works miracles.”
Arguably, molecular biologist Carol Greider does not think so, because while the pill might change a person’s life span, there is no scientific research that has confirmed that it actually does. Greider, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology, discovered telomerase in 1984 when she was a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley.
TA-65 has claimed that it can lengthen telomeres to improve the skin, the immune system and eyesight based on the peer-reviewed, double-blind study it conducted. Greider has warned people of this “anti-aging pill,” saying that questions about cancer have been raised in relation to TA-65 because cancer cells have been shown to thrive on the same enzyme found in TA-65.
Greider said, research on TA-65 has been limited and no one to date has confirmed the effects of its long-term usage. According to the website of TA Sciences, the company which manufactures TA-65, the dietary supplement is a plant-based, all-natural, patented compound that can help in the maintenance or rebuilding of telomeres.
TA Sciences has said that the risk of unwanted cellular growth can be offset by TA-65 because of the boost it can give the immune system. And although a study published in the Aging Cell reported that taking TA-65 does not cause cancer – a condition that has been attributed to it — the same study did not indicate any longevity improvements from TA-65 either.
According to Rush’s wife, Carla, who is turning 43 this year, she feels like she is 25 years old. She maintains a well-balanced diet, works out on a regular basis, and, like her husband, takes several nutritional supplements. Rush calls Greider’s questions on TA-65’s link to cancer as “theoretical concerns.” Rush, it seems, is totally sold on this cycloastragenol supplement and got Carol to try it.
The Price of Anti-Aging: Is it Worth Your Money?
His wife has admitted that she now feels “great” after she started taking TA-65 a year ago. Anyone else who wants to get this pill needs to have a very deep wallet. Depending on dosage, the pill can cost between $2,400 and $8,000 a year. According to RevGenetics, a private U.S. supplement company, the price of TA-65 is the same everywhere as of this time.
Except if the buyer happens to be on the list of private sales. Even with their Match Price Guarantee, however, the price of TA-65 remains prohibitive — at $100 for 30 capsules per bottle – for those on a budget. Here is the cycloastragenol dosage as recommended by RevGenetics to help you make an informed purchase decision:
- One capsule at 250 units daily for adults who are between 40-plus and 50-plus years of age.
- Two capsules at 500 units daily for adults who are between 50-plus and 60-plus years of age.
- Four capsules at 1,000 units daily for adults who are 65 years of age and older.
Most people who are inclined to try the product tend to shy away from it after they do the math of how much they will have to spend to stay young. Interestingly enough, a study conducted seven years ago by Greider’s mentor revealed that lifestyle, not any kind of pill or pharmaceutical formulation, can increase telomerase levels.
Why Should TA-65 Be Any Different?
The study conducted in 2008 by the famed University of San Francisco biochemist Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and well-known author Dr. Dean Ornish who heads the Sausalito, California-based Preventive Medicine Research Institute showed that telomerase levels can be increased by a healthy lifestyle that can also control the aging process.
Published in the online edition of the prestigious medical journal Lancet Oncology, the study had 30 male participants with low-risk existing prostate cancer. These men exercised moderately, reduced their stress, and improved their dietary habits. As a result, they had higher telomerase levels at 29%.
The study also revealed the following information:
Gene expressions in the cells taken from the participants were modified.
There was an increase in the activity of genes with disease-preventing capabilities.
Some of these genes – including those which are involved in the development of prostate and breast cancers – had their activities shut down.
The findings of Drs. Blackburn and Ornish that suggest telomerase levels may be increased by improved lifestyles have not been contested or condemned. This has prompted the manufacturer of TA-65 to comment that their product raises TA-65 levels as well, therefore, why should its mechanism of action be any different?
The Pros and Cons of Telomerase
Gerontologist/stem cell scientist/researcher of telomere and cellular aging/former Advanced Cell Technology CEO Dr. Michael D. West, Ph.D has written his concerns on the reactivation of telomerase, albeit with restrictions on the following:
A whole body administration of the enzyme.
Use of telomerase on otherwise healthy and young patients.
Continuous administration of the enzyme on a long-term basis.
According to molecular biologist/gerontologist/founder and president of biotechnology company Sierra Sciences Dr. William Andrews, Ph.D, on the other hand, the only possible treatment for shortened telomeres at the moment is TA-65. Andrews wrote that it is, in fact, extending life and health spans and have support based on theoretical grounds.
The Pros According to Andrews
Still according to Andrews, the 85 to 95 percentage of all cases of cancers indicate telomerase activity and many research laboratories are at work to develop telomerase activity inhibitors to be able to find a solution to cancer. In effect, Andrews is saying that telomerase is not the cause of cancer but only turn on an expression of telomerase to extend its own life span.
Andrews explained that the issue is cancer cells that have lost control of their growth but have not expressed any telomerase activity or any other pathway like alternative telomere lengthening. The extended length of telomeres, admittedly, has elevated risks of cancer but there are also reasons that longer telomeres have reduced these risks, especially in those who have later aging stages.
The Cons According to West
West explained that while TA-65 as a nutritional supplement is a small, single, and naturally-occurring molecule, it can reawaken telomerase expression, although there has been no evidence published that the molecule is capable of extending the life span of cells or lengthening telomeres. West has also something to say about the Astragalus plant, from which TA-65 is extracted.
While the root extracts of the Astragalus plant have been found safe for human consumption, West wrote that a purified form administered in doses from six to 12 months has no normal nutrition precedent. Additionally, West wrote that a telomerase expression in the human body’s entirety may, in his opinion, expose an individual an unsafe cancer risk.
The human body’s runaway cells, explained West, which have active and inactive oncogenes and tumor-suppressing genes, respectively, that may have been stalled in their activities as a result of being “mortal,” a.k.a. pre-malignant tumors or growths. These tumors include growing prostates in men, colon polyps, and even the large, albeit not malignant just yet, mole on a person’s back.
Still according to West, allowing pre-malignant tumors to take off in uncontrolled growth can increase cancer risks. This makes it necessary to have a protocol in place to address cellular aging beneficial to health by increasing the potential for longevity without exposing individuals to the unnecessary risk for cancers.
Could telomerase activators operating at a weak level increase cancer risks?
West wrote that if these activators are considered weak enough not to lengthen telomeres at a point in which they could increase cancer risks, what would be the reason for using them to treat aging? West advised that those interested in using unregulated or new therapies such as telomerase activators should consider trade-offs of benefits versus risks very carefully.
Marketed not as a drug but as supplement, TA-65 needs no approval from the U.S. FDA. At the same time, TA Sciences, the company that manufactures the supplement, is not in the position to claim that the product can effectively cure diseases. According to TA Sciences CEO Noel Patton, the results of the testing they did on the product for five years are available on their company website.
Andrews, whose company screens chemicals for the activation of telomerase, has been a client of TA Sciences for two years and a half. Andrews once said he thinks it is safer to take a telomerase inducer than driving his car to work, albeit he has acknowledged that there are risks which are still unknown with taking TA-65 as a supplement.
To Take or Not to Take an Anti-Aging Pill?
If you are in a quandary about whether or not to take any supplement which is being marketed as a telomere activator inducer, take the time to consider this:
The enzyme – telomerase — in the supplement is the same one which enables cancer cells to become immortal or stop aging. Such a supplement could help keep cancer cells alive which could have died otherwise.
Those willing to take a chance on the possible benefits of this supplement will just have to believe in the points taken up by Andrews, who said that he has chosen to take the supplement and looks forward to stronger telomerase activators. Less adventurous individuals such as West and Greider can always opt for lifestyle changes that can optimize telomeres sans the hefty price tag.
*Not recommended for pregnant or nursing women, children, or those with severe liver or kidney disease.
*The product is not intended to prevent or cure any disease. By standard definitions, “Aging” is not a disease.