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Keys to Immortality – Telomerase, Stem Cells & Gene Therapy

By October 30, 2019 No Comments
Keys to Immortality – Telomerase, Stem Cells & Gene Therapy

Man is mortal! But his desire to be immortal is eternal.

There are many new possibilities that can make a human being nearly immortal, if not completely. Sounds impossible? Well, over the past few decades, medical science has made such progress that we at least discuss these possibilities. We already have immortals on Earth. Yes! But they are unicellular organisms. They don’t die of aging. These organisms divide into two, to keep their generations going. And they can do this limitless time. On the other hand, we grow up and every single second of our life we are marching towards death. We age and we die. Human is multicellular organism. In a nutshell, we can say – we age because our cells age. Normal human somatic cells do not have limitless replicative potential. Every normal human somatic cell divides 50-70 times (Hayflick limit or Hayflick phenomenon). Thus, when this limit is achieved, signs of aging and various diseases come into play. While the average life span of a normal human being is 80 years, some of the species can even live up to 200 years or more. Yes, a tortoise named Adwaita (species: Aldabra Giant Tortoise) lived more than 250 years. Don’t be surprised. I have seen this one alive. So, there must be something in our gene that basically controls the number of cell divisions we shall have and ultimately controls our life span. After years of research, scientists got the answer.

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Telomeres

A telomere is a region of repetitive nucleotide sequences at each end of a chromosome, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration or from fusion with neighboring chromosomes. With each cell division, the telomere gets shortened because of normal DNA replication mechanism and after a certain number of divisions, a time comes when it is completely lost. That is the limit. Because if the cell divides again, it cannot preserve its genetic information completely and thus it is better not to divide than giving birth to faulty systems. Human germ cells are an exception in this case.

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These cells contain an enzyme named ‘Telomerase’. Simply saying, this enzyme helps to expand the Telomere sequence and hence human germ cells achieve limitless replicative potential. Many scientists are working on this principle of the human germ cells. Their goal is to somehow introduce this property of germ cells into the somatic cells and achieve limitless replicative potential within physiological limits. Signs of aging and age-related degenerative diseases, as well as some chronic diseases, will be easier to handle then. But it’s not going to be so easy. This phrase ‘within physiological limit’ is very important. Because we already know some abnormal somatic cells which switch on the ‘telomerase’ gene and achieve this potential. Cancer cells! Yes, one of the deadly properties of cancer cells is they replicate infinite times and die only when the individual dies! Some of the cancer cells do activate telomerase enzyme to achieve that. It is the hardest hurdle they are facing in telomerase therapy.

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If scientists can overcome this hurdle, it will open new doors in medical science. If doctors can control this telomerase activity, they will be able to regenerate damaged tissue or even the entire organ from a single cell and thus one can be nearly immortal. Imagine a patient with liver cirrhosis who will not undergo a liver transplant. Instead, under the controlled intervention of gene therapy, his liver will regrow! And no chance of graft rejection. Myocardial infraction, stroke, and many more complicated conditions will be easily cured. But this therapy needs a fair bit of research and a number of advancements to be used as a trial even. But for the time being, we have another technique that has gained a good response over the past few years.

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Stem Cell Therapy

The entire human body is made up of trillions of different types of cells. But interestingly they all came from a single cell. Embryonic Stem Cells (Pluripotent) are those cells that give rise to any kind of cell the human body possesses. It has been scientifically proven that if we amputate the finger of a growing embryo at the initial few weeks, it regenerates scarlessly. It means at that stage of life cells are capable of regeneration. Per recent advancements, the scientists are using this property and trying to regenerate a whole organ with these pluripotent stem cells. Again, let’s give the example of the same liver cirrhosis patient. If scientists achieve success in this therapy, doctors will be introducing the stem cells into the liver and it will regenerate and achieve its functionality again. This therapy has been tested in leukemia patients successfully. That gives us a ray of hope that in near future this technique might be used as a treatment of many diseases that seem to be incurable now.

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Another possibility can be Gene Therapy. As we grow old, our cells divide a number of times and in the course may get mutated. Mutations in genes can give rise to a number of deadly diseases like malignancies. Mutation can be a point mutation or a whole segment of the gene can be affected. These days scientists are able to replace the faulty portion of the gene with the normal one and that opens a whole lot of possibilities to treat genetic diseases. In case of congenital genetic abnormalities,they are basically combining two abovementioned therapies for the mankind.

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Stem Cell Therapy + Gene Therapy

As an example, in case of sickle cell disease – scientists isolate the pluripotent haematopoiesis stem cells and correct the genetic abnormality. Upon introduction to the body, these stem cells produce normal blood cells.

All the techniques mentioned above are going to be the future of the medical science. These can definitely increase the life span as well as the quality of life. But these all techniques are at the initial stages and need to go through a number of trials to be accepted as TREATMENT. The way medical science is advancing, we can certainly expect it sooner.

About the author

Mahan Shome is a young medico studying medicine abroad. In his leisure time, Mahan likes to read innovative scientific health articles. His dream is to be part of healthcare research that brings about advancement in medicine. He hails from Howrah, West Bengal.

Mahan Shome

About Mahan Shome

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