Telomeres: The balance between aging and cancer

Nezaket Türkel, PhD

Nezaket Türkel, PhD

Molecular Oncology Researcher and Genetic Engineer

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What is it? How does it work? What are its contributions to longevity? We explain all these questions and more about telomeres.

What are telomeres?

Telomeres are structures consisting of self-repeating DNA sequences and associated proteins that do not encode any genes. They protect the ends of chromosomes (the genetic units formed by the condensation of DNA with the help of proteins and which provide heredity in living organisms) against degradation.


How does it work?

During cell division, DNA is replicated and this is called DNA replication. Due to the nature of DNA replication during replication, the very end of the chromosome cannot be copied. Telomeres, which are repetitive sequences located at the very end of the chromosome, prevent the natural ends of the DNA from mixing with damaged DNA. So, we can think of telomeres as protective caps. Therefore, telomeres naturally shorten with each cell division. This shortening acts as a kind of “biological clock” that counts down to a point where the cell can no longer divide. But is it possible to stop telomeres from shortening?


The shocking link between cancer and longevity: Telomerase

The enzyme (reaction accelerator biomolecule) called telomerase is composed of both RNA and protein components. The RNA component acts as a template, like a carbon copy paper, allowing new DNA sequences to be added to the ends of chromosomes. This prevents the DNA from becoming too short during each cell division.


Telomerase plays a key role in maintaining the length of telomeres, especially in cells that divide frequently, such as stem cells and some immune cells. Unfortunately, telomerase is also reactivated in many cancer cells. This allows cancer cells to divide continuously without undergoing the normal cell death (apoptosis) process associated with aging.

Implications for treatment

The understanding of the role of telomerase in the maintenance of telomere length has led to the search for therapeutic strategies.

Inhibition of telomerase is considered a potential strategy for cancer treatment as it may limit the ability of cancer cells to proliferate.

In contrast, in the field of aging research, approaches to increase telomerase activity as a means to counteract age-related telomere shortening and promote healthy cell function are beginning to be applied.


Long Telomeres – Long life?

Throughout human life, telomeres naturally shorten with each cell division. Over time, this shortening contributes to cellular aging (senescence) and eventually reaches a point where cells lose their ability to divide.

Shortened telomeres are associated with several age-related diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative disorders (the process by which nerve cells deteriorate and die over time) and some cancers. The link between telomere length and age-related shortening has led to research into whether preserving telomere length can influence the aging process.

Research in model organisms such as mice has shown that preserving telomere length through activated telomerase can delay age-related pathologies and prolong life span. However, transferring these findings to humans requires a much more complex experimental setup and process, while the role of telomerase in human longevity is still under investigation.

Considerations and Challenges

Efforts to increase telomerase activity include the challenge of preventing uncontrolled cell division while promoting healthy cellular function. A nuanced understanding of how telomerase effects on longevity affects different cell populations is crucial for developing targeted interventions.

In conclusion, while there is evidence to suggest that preservation of telomere length may have positive effects on aging, due to the cancer risk that may result from more than tolerable telomerase activity, further research is important before practical applications in humans.



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Lulkiewicz M, Bajsert J, Kopczynski P, Barczak W, Rubis B. Telomere length: how the length makes a difference. Mol Biol Rep. 2020 Sep;47(9):7181-7188. doi: 10.1007/s11033-020-05551-y. Epub 2020 Sep 2. PMID: 32876842; PMCID: PMC7561533.

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The information and statements on our website are not intended to guide individuals towards medical diagnosis and treatment. Please consult with your doctor for medical diagnostic and treatment procedures. The contents are shared for informational purposes only, derived from scientific studies prepared by EMC Medya Yayıncılık Ticaret Ltd. Şti.’s researchers, consultants, and authors/scientists, as well as compilations from publicly available publications. Our texts do not contain health statements related to medical diagnosis or treatment

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