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"Fountain of Youth" Telomere-Lengthening Enzyme Mapped Out for the First Time

Update Date: Mar 27, 2013 12:03 PM EDT

Researchers have for the first time mapped out the enzyme known as the "fountain of youth".

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen say the mapping of telomerase, an enzyme that rejuvenates aging cells by creating new ends on cellular chromosomes or "telomeres, may help in the fight against cancer.

Telomerase is one of the very basic enzymes in cell biology and works by making telomeres longer so that that they become the same length before cell division.

The latest discovery has illustrated for the first time the genetic correlation between cancer and telomere length and may provide insight into various cancers and their treatments, according to researcher Stig E. Bojesen.

"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," Bojesen said in a statement.

"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," he explained.

The human body is made up of fifty trillion cells, and each cell has 46 chromosomes, structures in the cell nucleus that contains DNA.  The ends of all 46 chromosomes in each cell are protected by telomeres, which protects the chromosomes from unraveling like the plastic sheath on the end of a shoelace.  However, each time a cell divides, the telomeres at the end of the chromosomes become a little bit shorter and eventually end up being too short to protect the chromosomes. Once the telomeres become too short, cells will longer be able to divide. 

However, some special cells in the body can activate the telomere-elongating enzyme telomerase. For example sex cells, or other stem cells, activate telomerase because these cells need to be able to divide more than normal cells.

The latest findings are important for cancer research is because tumor cells can also produce telomerase to keep themselves artificially young. Researchers said using telomerase to identify cancer genes might lead to better treatments and identification rates for various tumors.

"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," Bojesen said.

"Mapping telomerase is therefore an important step towards being able to predict the risk of developing different cancers," he explained.

The latest findings published in the journal Nature Genetics and involved more than 1,000 researchers worldwide.  Researchers said the study, which involved blood samples for more than 200,000 people, is the largest collaboration project ever to be conducted within cancer genetics. 

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