Telomeres are our cellular biologic time clocks. They are found at the end of every healthy chromosome. It they are short that chromosome and the cell it lives in are headed for disaster. By disaster I mean,
1) Removal from the functional cell pool leaving you with fewer healthy cells to do their job.
2) Auto suicide where the cell blows up from the inside out also known as apoptosis- same result fewer healthy cells to do the job.
3) Cancer-that’s right cancer. An article in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association showed that short telomeres are equated to increased cancer incidence and increased cancer severity.
Bottom line message: short telomeres are bad for you
Ok let’s look at some more studies that reinforce the message.
In the October issue of Cancer Discovery a large group of men with known prostate cancer that was initially confined to the prostate gland were evaluated for telomere length in their tumors. Their findings confirm the importance of telomere length in both initial cancer treatment and its follow up.
They found that a variable telomere length or a wide distribution of telomere length when combined with short telomeres in the surrounding non cancerous tissue led to a higher likelihood of the prostate cancer metastasizing (spreading).
Men with this combination of telomere pathology had a 14X higher chance of dying in less than 10 years than men who did not.
Dr Dave comments:
First remember that prostate cancer is a very variable disease. The current recommendations for screen are far less aggressive than even 2 years ago because recent data indicates there is enough low grade disease out there that will not significantly shorten the life span of the men that have it that finding all the prostate cancers we can and diagnosing them and/or treating them is MORE likely to kill the patient or cause significant harm than letting men live out their lives with the disease.
If you look at the recommendations for things like mammograms chest X rays Pap smears and all manner of “routine screening” tests these have ALL changed in the past few years because we realize we did more harm than good by being super aggressive about looking for these diseases in low risk populations.
That said having a good indicator of the people we SHOULD watch closely when we do diagnose a disease is incredibly valuable for the use of our health care dollars and resources. Using telomere measurements of this kind could help us select the people who needed much closer and more aggressive follow up where the risk of things like biopsies or the expense of PSA blood testing is justified. It’s like using telomeres to tailor make the treatment and follow up plan.
As far as the “wide distribution” of telomere lengths be aware that this is common in many different cancers. In some cases it means that telomere length goes from ultra short to short. In other cases it means telomere length varies from short to actually being longer than normal. Much of the “lengthening” of telomeres is actually false or misleading in a sense because it occurs from telomere end to end recombinations or the so called ALT method. This ALT method is almost always a very bad sign because it takes massive chromosomal instability to allow this to happen. This means the chromosome is super damaged and the genome is very unstable, both hall marks of bad cancers.
The fact that the surrounding tissues had short telomeres suggests again genomic instability and weakened sick cells that are “acting weak and old” or senescent. This would mean tumor invasion would be almost invited into the surrounding tissue.
It also reinforces something I have written about many times before when discussing the various methods for measuring telomeres. I prefer the Life Length assay over all others because it measures the percentage of short telomeres. No other test can do this accurately for the individual. Short telomeres are the hallmark of sick dysfunctional old cells that are more likely to cause cancer and disease!
You should also know similar studies in breast and many other cancers as well as heart disease also link telomere length to prognosis. The day is coming when telomere length will be a routine part of staging most cancers.
But here is the most important thing: Staging a cancer is not a great thing. Not getting one in the first place is much better.
Many of us in the telomere field myself included believe that since short telomeres are an increased risk for cancer, longer healthier ones are potentially protective. We know that people and animals with longer telomeres tend to have longer life spans and longer health spans (the amount of their lives spent in a health state) than those with shorter ones.
I would rather hear I do not have cancer than be told what stage it is in!
Think about it and do more research and you will feel the same way too!