Friday, November 23, 2007

Ending Old Age through Telomerase Activation

When I took my first college level course in physical anthropology, I took it upon myself to research the emerging body of scientific knowledge regarding the biological process known as senescence. Simply put, many (but not all) biological organisms grow to maturity, then attempt to maintain vitality, but eventually succumb to the ravages of old age and die. The process through which such organisms lose vitality is what is known as senescence.

Scientists have long believed that human aging is genetically programmed, and studies have more or less confirmed the fact that organismal senescence in humans is caused by senescence that first occurs at the cellular level. To wit, as humans age, the various cells in their bodies slow down the process of mitotic reproduction through which dead and damaged cells are routinely replaced. Eventually, this process stops altogether as cells reach what is known as their Hayflick limit and become "post-mitotic." Consequently, vital organs fail, and humans die. But for many years the question remained: Why do human cells become post-mitotic?

The Hayflick limit is not universal among all cell types. In fact, there are many cell types in the human body that never stop reproducing, and there is a general consensus among scientists that the key to what makes certain cells immortal is a naturally occurring enzyme known as telomerase. This enzyme works to repair the ends of DNA strands, known as "telomeres." Telomeres contain no genetic information. Rather, they are like the protective plastic tips that are found on the ends of shoelaces. Other things being equal, telomeres become shortened through the process of cellular mitosis, and when they become too short to insure the integrity of the DNA strands they protect, the cells containing those DNA strands become post-mitotic.

Since at least 1995, scientists have been working on ways to activate telomerase in healthy, post-mitotic cells, and they have already done so with both mice and human tissue. The undisputed leader in this field is a company called Geron, and many people (including me) have been waiting patiently for Geron to begin human trials. That wait came to an end in April of 2007 when a company known as T.A. Sciences under license with Geron published their findings of human trials involving one of Geron's products known as the TA-65 molecule.

Among those who have been following the still developing story of the human trials of TA-65, there's been quite a bit of speculation as to what the TA-65 molecule is. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the trials used TA-41, a TA-65 precursor molecule. According to T.A. Science's Executive Summary, TA-41 is an astragalus extract, astragalus being a plant (somewhat obscure in the West) that has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. But whatever TA-41 or TA-65 is, the claims made regarding its anti-aging properties are nothing short of phenomenal. To wit, 2 to 4 daily doses of 10mg tablets of TA-41 were given to men aged 60 to 85 for 12 weeks in a double-blind study, and the condition of their immune system, eye sight, sexual function, and skin improved dramatically.

Based on the results of these human trials, T.A. Sciences is now offering a year long regimen of TA-65 for the not-so-low price of $25,000.00. Not all of this fee is paid up front. Rather, a baseline testing of various aging biomarkers is performed for $2,000.00, and three weeks later an independent doctor gives you a private consultation of the results for $500.00. If you decide to move ahead with what they are calling the Patton Protocol, you then pay $11,250.00 for the first six months; at the end of six months, the tests performed in the baseline are repeated, and you pay another $11,250.00 if you want to continue with the program. Beyond that, there is vague discussion of "a possible continuing TA-65 program" at a reduced cost.

While it seems too good to be true, there is a distinct possibility that the Patton Protocol may actually succeed in halting and reversing the aging process in human beings through telomerase activation at the cellular level. I say this as someone who took various classes in physical anthropology and earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology before attending law school. In the meantime, I've kept pace with various scientific studies of senescence, observed the discovery of the role that telomeres and telomerase inhibition play in the process of cellular senescence, and then waited patiently for human trials of telomerase therapy to begin. And I can honestly say that I never thought it would come in the form of a nutritional supplement.

Is telomerase activation the key to a potentially unlimited human lifespan? It's too soon to tell, but as an anti-aging regimen, it's the most promising I've seen. And once the data is in on the Patton Protocol, scientists can explore the possibility that there are alternative and/or additional causes of aging such as the degradation of mitochondrial DNA that may end up being just as deadly to humans as shortened telomeres.

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