Telomere Length and How It Relates to Aging and Cancer


On June 29, 2016, cell biologists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center “have identified a new method for determining the lengths of telomeres, the endcaps of chromosomes, which can influence cancer progression and aging” (UT Southwestern Medical Center).

Telomeres–the “protective tips” of DNA strands which comprise chromosome ends–can be compared to the plastic tips on shoelaces. This is because telomeres prevent the ends of chromosomes from sticking together, fraying, and becoming damaged, which would ultimately result in the destruction and eradication of an individual’s genetic code. Telomeres are vital to livelihood and reproduction as they enable cells to divide and consist of information which can tell an individual more about how he or she will age and contract cancer. Cell division reduces the length of a telomere, and, once a telomere becomes too short, the cell can no longer divide itself. As a result, the cell begins to age until it ultimately dies (Learn.Genetics: University of Utah Health Sciences)


Learning more about this telomere shortening process (its frequency, length, and magnitude) and its association with cell aging and death has the potential to tell us more about an individual’s exposure to increased aging and cancer risk. When telomeres continue to shorten as a cell divides, DNA may be damaged, which can lead to the progression of aging and an increased cancer risk.  Due to the fact that telomeres are essentially the ends and protectors of chromosomes, they consist of genetic information which is passed along to each generation through DNA.

Thanks to the work of Dr. Jerry Shay, Dr. Tsung-Po Lai, and Dr. Woodring Wright at UT Southwestern Medical Center, “probes generated using this new approach significantly enhance the sensitivity of telomere length measurements” (UT Southwestern Medical Center).  As accuracy in measuring telomere length continues to improve, the scientific community can continue to take steps employ a preventative approach to limit cancer risk and aging exposure within an individual. Eventually, scientists may even be able to discover ways to improve and foster healthy cell growth or limit cell growth when an association with cancer or aging is evident.

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