Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Telomeres: Are They The Answer To Cancer & Aging

               In 2011, my mother was diagnosed with a form of cancer that left her with a tumor 3 inches in diameter along her sciatic nerve and an artery on the base of her spine and hip.  This cancer was classified as stage 4 which is the highest stage cancer could have.  The cancer originated 10 years ago when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, in which they subsequently removed all the reproductive organs from within her body.  Unfortuately, they did no post operative chemotherapy nor did they conduct any type of radiation treatment.   As a result, the cancer spread to the hip area and grew over a 10 year period.  After being diagnosed, they tried to debulk the tumor, but to no avail the tumor grew back to its original size within 3 weeks of the operation.  The nerve pain was so excruciating that my mom spent a good 6 months in the hospital, then another month or so for a bacterial infection within her intestines due to the radiation treatment that went on for 2 months 5 days a week.  During all this, being a curious and helpful son who couldnt watch his mom go through so much pain without doing something, so i started doing my own research on cancer and new treatments or ideas that could some day get rid of this horrible disease that affects the lives of millions of people all over the world.  I came across the word telomere, and ran with it.  I was even able to find a program on PBS-Nova that helped explain visually what I was reading about.  Here is what I learned.

                  Your DNA within every cell has a cap on either end of it to help make sure that genetic makeup of the cell does not unravel and subsequently be permanently damaged.  Unfortunately, every time your cell divides this "cap" or telomere is shortened slightly.  Over a lifetime the telomeres get shorter and shorter until eventually your cells no longer divide and you eventually pass away.  If you think about it, these telomeres are simply a ticking-time-bomb waiting to eventually get to the end and you pass away, and this limit of how many times they divide is known as the Hayflick limit.  Unfortunately though, each type of cell in your body is very complex, which in turn causes one to have to do serious genetic sequencing to dig deep into what these telomeres are all about.  We are fortunate enough to have the best and the brightest working on such a thing which is complimented by some of the fastest computers known to man. 

                       So how does this relate to cancer and aging?  In 90% of cancer cells, there is an enzyme that counteracts the shortening of the telomeres known as telomerase.  This enzyme allows cancer cells to divide and multiply at an alarming and frankly quite frightening rate as you could see in my mom's situation.  If we are able to dive deep into this research and know the genetic sequencing background of each type of cancer we can manipulate this enzyme for good, and quite possibly get rid of this horrible disease and effectively increase quality and quantity of life for mankind. 

             There is also a moral issue involved for both the patient as well as the health insurance company that is involved.  Should a human being be able to live forever because it has been proven with the implentation of stem cell research and the use of your own healthy cells to grow new organs?  How can you market and sell a product such as this when the drug industry in America exceeds profits of more than a billion dollars annually?  Does this mean that they will charge an astronomical amount for this treatment since they will lose alot, but not all their business?  Will it only be available to the rich for they might be the only one's who can afford it financially speaking?  How far will we go to help those who suffer from pain far beyond what we can even image? My mother to this day can not even remember the pain that she had.  All she can remember was that it happened, and she hopes that it will never happen again.  In her situation, the insurance company won't put up the 10,000 dollars for a PET scan which will show whether the tumor is dead, instead they give her CAT scans every three months to see if its shrinking.  In the end, what will happen the day we find the "fountain of youth", and we learn that we can live forever?

TelomeresAs you can see the white-yellow color are the "caps" or telomeres sort of like the caps at the end of your shoe laces that stop them from unraveling just like telomeres do for your DNA and genetic information

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