For the first time, scientists have mapped telomerase, an enzyme which has a kind of rejuvenating effect on normal cell ageing. For the study University of Copenhagen researchers collaborated with an international research team.
Mapping the cellular fountain of youth - telomerase. This is one of the results of a major research project involving more than 1,000 researchers worldwide, four years of hard work, DKK 55 million from the EU and blood samples from more than 200,000 people. This is the largest collaboration project ever to be conducted within cancer genetics.
Stig E. Bojesen, a researcher at the Faculty of Health and Medicial Sciences, University of Copenhagen, and staff specialist at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Copenhagen University Hospital, Herlev, has headed the efforts to map telomerase - an enzyme capable of creating new ends on cellular chromosomes, the so-called telomeres. In other words, a kind of cellular fountain of youth.
"We have discovered that differences in the telomeric gene are associated both with the risk of various cancers and with the length of the telomeres. The surprising finding was that the variants that caused the diseases were not the same as the ones, which changed the length of the telomeres. This suggests that telomerase plays a far more complex role than previously assumed," said Stig E. Bojesen.
The mapping of telomerase is an important discovery, because telomerase is one of the very basic enzymes in cell biology. It relengthens the telomeres so that they get the same length as before embarking on cell division.
The mapping of telomerase may, among other things, boost our knowledge of cancers and their treatment, and with the new findings the genetic correlation between cancer and telomere length has been thoroughly illustrated for the first time, noted Stig E. Bojesen.
Popularly speaking, each cell has a multi-ride ticket, and each time the cell divides, the telomeres (the chromosome ends) will use up one ride. Once there are no more rides left, the cell will not divide any more, and will, so to speak, retire. But some special cells in the body can activate telomerase, which again can elongate the telomeres.
"A gene is like a country. As you map it, you can see what is going on in the various cities. One of the cities in what could be called Telomerase Land determines whether you develop breast cancer or ovarian cancer, while other parts of the gene determine the length of the telomeres. Mapping telomerase is therefore an important step towards being able to predict the risk of developing different cancers. In summary, our findings are very surprising and point in many directions. But as is the case with all good research, our work provides many answers but leaves even more questions," concluded Stig E. Bojesen.
The findings have just been published in Nature Genetics.