By Hannah Sivak, PhD
Skin Actives Scientific, LLC
Telomeres are the ends (caps) of chromosomes, and telomere shortening is a mechanism that limits cell proliferation. The Nobel Prize of 2009 (Physiology or Medicine) was awarded to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, the scientists that discovered an enzyme, telomerase, that adds DNA to the ends of chromosomes to balance out the DNA that is naturally lost as cells grow (see http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2009/adv.pdf) . The loss of DNA from telomeres might have something to do with aging and, to add to the significance of this discovery, it turned out that in almost all cancers, telomerase is turned on so those cells grow indefinitely.
When it comes to telomerase, what is impossible? It is impossible to benefit your skin with telomerase applied externally. This is good, trust me, because the last thing you need is activated telomerase out of control in your body. Why can’t you increase telomerase activity by “injecting” telomerase inside your cell nuclei? For two reasons: the telomerase complex is huge and complex and your cells are built to prevent such an invasion.
The enzymatic part of this complex, TERT, reverse- transcribes telomere DNA onto the ends of linear chromosomes (extending telomeres shortened by regular DNA replication). In contrast to most normal somatic cells, which show little or no telomerase activity, immune cells up-regulate telomerase in concert with activation. The cell and nuclei membranes have been designed by evolution to be practically impermeable to foreign molecules. The reason why viruses can still infect human cells is because they possess sophisticated mechanisms to evade detection and penetrate formidable defenses. In fact, one way that scientists have used to increase telomerase activity is by attaching it to a virus-like particle. This is sophisticated science, and the techniques involved, like cell-replacement and gene therapy are still in the experimental stages (cell complexity is such that even when everything seems perfect these therapies still fail).
Unfortunately scientific reality has not prevented some companies such as ReVive from marketing products containing Telomerase. I think that eventually ingredient lists like that of ReVive including telomerase will disappear, because it is so obviously silly. What you will see a lot more is claims of telomerase temporary activators like TA65, a proprietary extract of Astragalus root. Astragalus root was already used to stimulate the immune system and wound healing. When the chemicals responsible for these activities were identified, they were found to be the cycloartane-type saponins. Further studies found that these saponins stimulate telomerase.
Let’s speculate about possible benefits from temporary activators: is the Hayflick limit temporarily removed, i.e. the number of possible cell divisions for a non-stem cell increase to, say, 70 from 60? I have not seen that kind of clear effect in scientific publications and, in any case, other factors have been found to affect telomerase activity. For example, short term stress will stimulate telomerase in peripheral blood mononuclear cells, but long term stress will depress it (Epel et al. 2010). So don’t count yet on improving and extending your life by buying an expensive supplement like TA65: a few milligrams will cost you enough to stress you, negating the beneficial effect of the chemical. Instead, maybe you could use instead our resveratrol (Xia et al. 2008) or Astragalus root extract?
I am already seeing patent applications for synthetic telomerase activators. Please keep away from these synthetic activators. It will take decades for testing to ensure their safety but irresponsible companies may start offering long before safety is established.
Epel ES, Lin J, Dhabhar FS, Wolkowitz OM, Puterman E, Karan L, Blackburn EH. (2010). Dynamics of telomerase activity in response to acute psychological stress. Brain Behav Immun. 24:531-539
Xia L, Wang XX, Hu XS, Guo XG, Shang YP, Chen HJ, Zeng CL, Zhang FR, Chen JZ. (2008) Resveratrol reduces endothelial progenitor cells senescence through augmentation of telomerase activity by Akt-dependent mechanisms. Br J Pharmacol.155:387-94.