Today a group of medical researchers reported the discovery of something very intriguing in a type of pancreatic cancer called PanNET. Turns out PanNET is associated with mutations in two genes that help control a part of your DNA that determines whether you die.
Specifically, these genes can artificially lengthen the telomeres, caps on the ends of chromosomes that gradually erode as you grow older. Above, you can see PanNET cells - the glowing pink bits are the areas where the cancer is causing telomere extension. Usually, short telomeres are associated with disease and death. As a result, some scientists believe that keeping telomeres long could be one way to lengthen life (a few tests in mice seem to back this up). PanNET may have just given us two genetic tools to prolong life. The question is, what would a cancer-extended life be like?
Mutations in the genes ATRX and DAXX are responsible for the effect that's intrigued Johns Hopkins Medical Institute researcher Christopher Heaphy and his team. In PanNET cancer, these genes shut down. As a result, the proteins that these genes manufacture no longer keep the telomeres in fighting trim. The telomeres grow wildly in a process called, perhaps unsurprisingly, "Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres."
Unfortunately for people suffering PanNET, the extra long telomeres are what keep cancerous genes alive even when they are malfunctioning horribly. That's why it's probably more appropriate to call these cells undead rather than immortal. Yes, they're alive, but they're shambling along and trying to replicate and replace every other cell with a version of themselves.
The question is whether researchers like Heaphy could turn this undeath into something more like eternal life. Knowing which genes to shut down in order to allow telomeres to lengthen could be the first step in a process that ends with healthy cells that don't age. The problem is, no one knows for sure whether short telomeres cause aging, or are just a result of some other age clock in the body we haven't yet identified.
Read the full scientific article via Science