Growing up, you must have heard of famous characters that can live for all eternity. In the Indian subcontinent, the stories of ‘Chiranjeevi,’ immortal beings, are quite famous. Similarly, the stories of vampires, Draculas, and other beings that can live forever without ageing a single day have fascinated humans for a long time. But what if someone told you all of this was possible? That living your whole life as youthful as you desire to be is a thing your body can do?
No, it is not like the fictional characters Deadpool or Wolverine; it is something that stem cells in an infant actively do. The key to this fictional concept being true is an enzyme called telomerase. How are telomerase and ageing linked? Telomerase can support cell rejuvenation and even reverse cellular ageing.
But how is this possible? Well, that is what the research published by Profession Julian Chen from Arizona State University talks about. In this post, let’s uncover the mysteries of ‘telomerase’ and see whether or not humans can be immortal.
Telomerase and Aging Of the Human Body
Before learning about the telomerase definition, let’s first understand how ageing works in the human body. The human body is made up of different types of cells, and out of those cells, stem cells are responsible for regeneration, fighting back any health problems, and a lot of other wellness functions. These stem cells have chromosomes that contain DNA information. One of the tips of these chromosomes is a cellular capping called ‘telomere.’
Every chromosome has a set of six DNA repeats or nucleotides. Telomere acts as a protective layering to protect these DNA repeats and the chromosome from unauthorised DNA rearrangements. As the body grows, the stem cells undergo cell division, and the telomeric capping keeps shrinking with each division. As it shrinks, the body undergoes ageing as the cells are no longer protected from external interference.
What is Telomerase: Telomerase Definition
Now you must be thinking, then, how did nature protect the human body against ageing rapidly since the cells divide at a very high speed? That is what telomerase is responsible for. Telomerase is an enzyme that contains an RNA template and helps add DNA repeats back to the chromosome. As the telomere shrinks, the telomerase responds and adds information to the chromosome lost during cell division.
Telomerase and ageing essentially go hand-in-hand. As the stem cell’s telomere shrinks, telomerase synthesises the RNA template of its own and adds back the DNA repeats in the form of six nucleotides. The RNA template is synthesised in the format of ‘GGTTAG,’ which the stem cell accepts. Now, this process does help in slowing down the rapid ageing of the human body, but naturally, it is not sufficient to keep the body young for a long time or even provide immortality to humans.
Immortality: The Bigger Picture
Source / Telomerase adding DNA repeats to the chromosomes
For the last half-century, scientists have been trying to find out what it is in babies that helps their wounds get healed so fast or even helps them grow at such a rapid rate. The answer is that stem cells at a very young age are quite high in number. As the human body grows, the telomere present in the stem cells shrinks, and they eventually keep dying. This is the summary of the whole ageing process in short form.
Telomerase does have the power to slow down ageing or even reverse the ageing process, but naturally, there is a ‘braking mechanism’ associated with the functioning of telomerase. This naturally occurring enzyme does not continuously keep adding DNA repeats to the chromosomes. With the body’s ageing, the stem cell count reduces, and adult stem cells get exhausted because of shrinking telomeres. “Telomerase has a built-in braking system to ensure precise synthesis of correct telomeric DNA repeats. This safe-guarding brake, however, also limits the overall activity of the telomerase enzyme,” these are the words of Professor Chen in the aforementioned research paper.
So, to ensure immortality, scientists need to find a way to tap into this braking mechanism. This means that they will need to find out how they can control the DNA repeats addition by the telomerase so ageing can be stopped.
Reaching the Full Potential of Telomerase
Source / Telomerase ageing theory
You must understand by now that the active pause signal embedded into the telomerase and ageing factor makes immortality such a far-fetched concept. The braking mechanism of telomerase is an active signal to the enzyme to stop the RNA template synthesis from adding information after the ‘GGTTAG’ sequence is added. Until this sequence is further finished due to cell division, telomerase does not add more nucleotides to the chromosomes.
According to scientists, the secret to reaching the full potential of telomerase is not artificially synthesising it but actively targeting this intrinsic braking mechanism. Instead of the sequence addition restarting after the cellular division, if telomerase starts adding to the sequence as soon as it shrinks just a bit, the process of ageing can be completely stopped. Stem cells will be able to live forever and, therefore, regenerate the body tissues. Health problems will be cured rapidly, and humanity can finally be immortal. It will be similar to how Deadpool and Wolverine regenerate even after their limbs are cut off.
Is the Road to Immortality So Simple?
After understanding the importance of telomerase, if you think that humanity can be immortal just by finding a way to solve the intrinsic braking mechanism process, you probably need to learn the other roadblocks. Do you know that cancer cells use telomerase to grow destructively in the body and thus cause severe health issues to bring about death?
If humans were to permanently find a way to stop telomeres from hitting the brakes, cancer could become immortal in humans as well. So this is why it is important to find a solution to telomerase used by cancer cells without any pause. The solution to this problem is introducing targeted drugs that only increase the telomeric activities in the stem cells. Instead of improving the functionality of telomerase without discriminating amongst the cell types, going for the drugs that only work on human somatic cells and stem cells is important.
For that purpose, the report published by Arizona State University suggests using small-molecule drugs. These drugs can be screened to search for stem cells in the human body. The chemical reactions involved in the process after this can help in improving the telomeric activities only in the stem cells. This will increase the functionality of telomerase, and ageing can be a thing of the past.
Now that you have learned about the importance of telomerase and the human body’s ageing process, you must have realised that immortality like vampires is attainable in theory. Even though all of this seems to be a simple process, scientists have been working on it for years to find a way to stop stem cells from ageing and dying.
Moreover, the research has been about finding the drugs or techniques that can harness the power of telomerase in stem cells and somatic cells. Even today, the process of reaching immortality is on paper, and the discovery of drugs that can directly stimulate selectivity in telomerase activities is pending. To conclude, you can imagine an immortal future for humanity and try to learn even more about telomerase, and the importance of telomerase.
The human body is a marvel that nature has created in millions of years of evolution. So finding a way to top the functionality of nature is a tough job. But let’s hope that scientists keep reaching milestones in this field and that at least patients with severe diseases get a chance to be cured because of the higher stem cell population.