Science in the Spotlight: The Telomerase Revolution

Death is an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. This notion underlies much of our literature and films, and even affects the choices we make in everyday life. Death and poor health plague our futures. But what if there were an elixir that might allow us to live even longer than today’s centenarians—a life devoid of age-related illnesses, like Alzheimer’s? It might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but some scientists and physicians argue that sometime in the future, we could turn science fiction into reality.

One of these physicians is Michael Fossel, MD-PhD and a professor of clinical medicine at Michigan State University, who studies the science of aging. In his book, The Telomerase Revolution, Fossel introduces telomerase as a component in treating illnesses like heart disease and dementia—and even in reversing aging itself. Telomerase is an enzyme that repairs telomeres, the regions at the ends of chromosomes. Within the last two decades, scientists have found that the shortening of telomeres causes cellular aging, thus giving rise to the telomere theory of aging.

 In the book, Fossel excellently explains the elegance of this theory. He contextualizes the theory with respect to other theories of aging—vitalist, hormonal, and genetic theories, amongst others—and proposes a strong unifying argument for telomeres as a cause of aging. Poignantly, Fossel illustrates the powerful implications of the telomere theory of aging: by activating telomerase in lab mice, signs of aging can not only be stopped, but also reversed. Through telomerase therapy, Fossel argues, humans have the potential to not only live longer, but also live more healthily.

Although Fossel explains the effects of telomere shortening on the human body, he only does so on a surface level. Those curious about mechanistic explanations will be scratching their heads searching for deeper answers. Further, Fossel goes beyond the biology of telomerase to explain the highs and lows of telomerase therapy, often muddled in politics or stalled by lack of financial support. Finally, Fossel discusses the societal implications of telomerase therapy. How will we value life when we can all live into old age? To those curious about telomerase therapy and its potentially earth-shaking implications, this book is definitely worth a read.

While the full implications of the purported “telomerase revolution” are still speculative, the book ends with a commentary about what we can currently do to fight the negative effects of aging. According to Fossel, the best answers are often the most simple: good diet, exercise, and meditation.

Rating (out of 5 stars): 5