Researchers have successfully been able to map an enzyme known as the "fountain of youth" for the first time, which could potentially lead to fruitful treatment of cancer.
University of Copenhagen researchers, in collaboration with an international research team, have been able to map telomerase, which is an enzyme that has a rejuvenating effect on normal cell aging. The study's findings have been published in the Nature Genetics journal and are a step forward in finding a cure for cancer.
While telomerase apparently has the potential to slow or reverse the aging process in humans, it also plays an important role in cancer development.
"We have discovered that differences in the telomeric gene are associated both with the risk of various cancers and with the length of the telomeres.The surprising finding was that the variants that caused the diseases were not the same as the ones which changed the length of the telomeres. This suggests that telomerase plays a far more complex role than previously assumed," notes lead scientist Stig E Bojesen.
The human body is composed of 50 trillion cells, all with 46 chromosomes. Telomerase is the enzyme responsible for creating telomeres, which protect the ends of all the chromosomes. To illustrate, just the way a plastic sheath protects the ends of a shoe lace, similarly telomeres protect the chromosome ends against damage.
However, each time a cell divides so that it can grow and renew, a telomere becomes shorter until eventually it is too small to protect the chromosomes. In such scenarios, the cells become old and die, which results in aging.
The current study shows that telomerase enzyme re-lengthens the telomeres so they are the same length before cell division takes place.
According to researchers, each cell in the human body has a "multi-ride" ticket and each time a cell division occurs, it uses up one telomere ride. Consequently, once all the rides are exhausted the cell will "retire." However, there are also some special cells in the body which can activate telomerase so that it can continue to lengthen the telomeres.
Scientists are of the opinion that if they can map telomerase, the identification rate and treatment of cancer will become easier.
"A gene is like a country. As you map it, you can see what is going on in the various cities. One of the cities in what could be called Telomerase Land determines whether you develop breast cancer or ovarian cancer, while other parts of the gene determine the length of the telomeres," says Bojesen. "Mapping telomerase is therefore an important step towards being able to predict the risk of developing different cancers. In summary, our findings are very surprising and point in many directions. But as is the case with all good research, our work provides many answers but leaves even more questions."
With the research providing key inputs, we may be a step closer toward finding a cure for cancer.