The enzyme made of protein that adds DNA sequences to chromosome ends is called telomerase. It is usually present in adult germ cells, foetal tissues and tumour cells. Development regulates their activity, which is so low that it’s almost undetectable in body cells, also known as somatic cells. Somatic cells age because they do not use this enzyme regularly. The body ages as a result of ageing cells. If scientists can find a way to activate this enzyme in cells, cell growth and division will continue. The research being conducted for this purpose is commonly referred to as the immortal cell theory. It has significance in two main areas, namely ageing and cancer.
Studies have been conducted on mice, which have indicated that the process of ageing can be reversed by reactivating telomerase. These studies involved engineering scenarios in which mice were left devoid of the enzyme. When this was done, they were found to be quite weak. However, when the enzyme was added again, it restored them back to good health. They were able to conclude that specific disorders that are characterised by early ageing are treatable with an increase in this enzyme’s activity. Some have even postulated that rate of normal ageing in human beings could be reduced by reactivating this enzyme in dying cells. However, it would take years more of extensive research to be able to confirm that what they noticed in mice could be replicated in the human body. The downside of increasing this enzyme’s activity in human beings is that it can potentially lead to tumours.
Scientists have found that telomerase in humans is found in its mutated form in cancers. It also seems to accelerate the growth of tumours. However, many argue that healthy cells can be protected from turning cancerous by avoiding DNA damage. There are those who postulate that it might even prevent tumours. The key is to make the treatment safe, and once that’s done, medical breakthroughs will be possible in organ function restoration, especially among the elderly. Various other ageing disorders could be treated too. Unfortunately, many scientists are sceptical about whether this process can be made safe. While telomerase has so many benefits, if the enzyme isn’t harnessed safely, it could cause cancer and lead to tumours in human beings. There are others who opine that ageing is a lot more complex than simply being about erosion of telomeres. But the majority agree that after thorough research, it might be possible to combine this enzyme’s therapy with other remedies and such combined efforts could open up various biochemical pathways in the study of ageing.
The medical community agree that drug research, when it comes to cancer, can make big progress if they target the study of telomerase. The major difficulty at the moment in fighting cancer deals with the fact that the immune system isn’t able to recognise the disease. However, if scientists are able to deactivate telomerase, they might be able to kill cancerous cells.
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