For many scientists who know about such things, the question isn’t whether the first person to live forever has been born, but how old they are. The basis for this belief is that, if a person can survive the next 20 or 30 years, then breakthroughs in biotechnology will easily allow them to extend their lifespan – not to mention their quality of life – to 125 years. From that point, the advances will keep coming to allow the prolonging of life indefinitely. One of the first steps towards such a reality has just been announced by a group of researchers who have discovered the first compound that activates an enzyme called telomerase in the human body.

"Clock of aging"

A region of repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome called a telomere, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration, is thought to be the "clock of aging" contained within the human body. Many scientists believe that the limit on lifespan and decline in health is imposed by the gradual shortening of our telomeres that occurs with every cell division. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that a human cell that does not undergo telomere shortening will divide indefinitely and is, by all available measurements, immortal.

Now researchers at Sierra Sciences, in collaboration with colleagues at TA Sciences, Geron Corporation, PhysioAge, and the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), have discovered the first compound that activates telomerase – an enzyme that lengthens telomeres – in the human body, potentially opening the door to arresting or even reversing the aging process.

TA-65

The compound, a natural product derived nutraceutical known as TA-65, was shown to lengthen the shortest telomeres in humans, potentially extending human lifespan and healthspan. Telomerase activation is thought to be a keystone of future regenerative medicine and a necessary condition for clinical immortality.

Although TA-65 is probably too weak to completely arrest the aging process, it is the first telomerase activator recognized as safe for human use.

"We are on the cusp of curing aging," said William Andrews, Ph.D., co-author of this study and President and CEO of Sierra Sciences, LLC. "TA-65 is going to go down in history as the first supplement you can take that doesn't merely extend your life a few years by improving your health, but actually affects the underlying mechanisms of aging. Better telomerase inducers will be developed in the coming years, but TA-65 is the first of a whole new family of telomerase-activating therapies that could eventually keep us young and healthy forever."

Multiple benefits

Telomerase activation has potential medical applications beyond extending human lifespan. Epidemiological studies have shown that short telomeres in humans are a risk factor for diseases including, among others, atherosclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cancer.

The team’s study also reports encouraging news on the effect of TA-65 on the body's immune system. Infectious diseases lead to telomere shortening in the immune system, as immune cells divide to fight infections. Telomerase activation should prevent this telomere shortening and allow the body's immune system to fight a chronic infection indefinitely.

The present study on TA-65 lends support to this hypothesis. In individuals infected with CMV, a virus which prematurely ages the immune system and significantly reduces life expectancy, TA-65 caused an apparent "age reversal" of approximately 5 to 20 years based on one biomarker of immune aging.

For the same reason, telomerase activation is a potential treatment for AIDS. "We tend to see HIV turning into AIDS when the cells of the immune system develop critically short telomeres," said Andrews. "HIV can essentially cause the immune system to die of old age while the majority of the body is still young. A telomerase activator could theoretically prevent an HIV-positive individual from ever developing AIDS."

Significantly extending human lifespan and healthspan poses serious questions for mankind. Aside from the positive economic benefits of eliminating age-related health problems to enable people to enjoy retirement illness-free – or work many more years – there are massive implications for the world population. In 2007 the United Nations Population Division projected that the world’s population will likely surpass 10 billion in 2055. It’s unlikely they factored in that many people – at least in wealthier countries – might stop dying when making their calculations. The resulting population explosion would place huge demands on energy, land, food and water. We better hope that breakthroughs in those areas keep apace with the breakthroughs in biotechnology or we might have to start considering a Logan’s Run type solution.

The researcher's findings appear as a research article entitled 'A natural product telomerase activator as part of a health maintenance program,' published September 7, 2010 ahead of print in the peer-reviewed journal Rejuvenation Research.