An important piece in the puzzle – human ageing, cancer, and stem cells

October 5, 2009

On Monday, in Shtokholm, three American scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their research explains a significant aspect of the process our cells undergo as they age and die. The long, thread-like DNA molecules that carry our genes are packed into chromosomes, the telomeres are the caps on their ends. A unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation during the cell’s duplication process. With each duplication telomeres are shortened, causing the cell to age and, eventually, to die. Telomerase is an enzyme that makes telomere. It’s activity is high at the beginning of cell’s life, then, as the body ages, telomerase becomes less and less active. Eventually telomerase stops recreating the telomeres, telomeres disappear completely, and the body dies. This process is true for all cells in our body, save for one kind. In this one kind of cells telomerase’s activity always remains high, telomere length is always maintained, and the death of the cell is delayed indefinitely. Those cells are immortal. They do not age, they do not die. Those cells are the cancer cells. I read an article explaining this research and it made me wonder … with the quest for immortality, with the terror and denial of death, with developing technology that keeps the body alive for as long as possible, with the intense drive to always be young, to never change, to never die … what is it that we are really doing? The only immortal cells in our bodies are cancer. It does makes me wonder…

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