A way to live as long as the Redwoods?

Palo Alto’s name literally means “tall stick”, referring to the more-than-a-thousand-year-old El Palo Alto, a coast redwood lying near the edge of the city. Today, the city is more commonly known for its ties to Stanford, a high cost of living, and that good ol’ Silicon Valley start-up culture. However, many of the valley’s wealthiest seem to be turning to the city’s namesake to inspire the next big biotech innovation. Bezos, Page, and Brin are just some of the names currently investing in technology aiming to halt, or even reverse, the aging process. 

While Peter Thiel has been (falsely) accused of attempting to regain youth by injecting the donated blood of teenagers, the most promising solution to the “problem” of aging seems to be in our DNA, not our blood. 

Telomeres are long, repetitive sequences of DNA on the tips of eukaryotic chromosomes. Each time one of our cells divides, some DNA on the end of each chromosome is lost in the process. Telomeres protect the coding regions of our DNA from being lost through cell division: as a consequence, each time a cell divides, its telomeres shorten. After some period of time telomeres shorten to the point that a cell can no longer divide. At this point, cells either stop growing, or die. 

Telomere length can be used as a metric of cellular age, and many believe that stopping aging on the cellular-level is key to stopping aging period. Telomeres have been associated with issues related to aging such as skin damage and graying hair, though no causative link has been found. A University of Utah study of unrelated individuals above the age of 60 found that those with shorter telomeres had a 3-fold higher likeliness to die of heart disease compared to those with longer telomeres. The risk of dying from infectious disease increased more than 8-fold. A separate study found telomere length in zebra finches to be a strong predictor of life span. 

In young cells, as well as constantly-dividing sperm and eggs, the enzyme telomerase repairs shortened telomeres after cell division. In 2015, a Stanford lab proved that TERT, the most important unit of the telomerase complex, could successfully lengthen the telomeres of cultured human cells. These cells proceeded to multiply as younger cells would, rather than stagnate or die. 

One company, Teloyears (unsurprisingly based in Silicon Valley), sells kits similar to the at-home DNA sample collection kits peddled by Ancestry.com and 23andMe. Teloyears will not only provide you with a breakdown of your ethnicity and ancestry, but a measure of your telomere length as well. Those wishing to lengthen their telomeres can sign up to receive a bottle of “Telomere Support” each month, a blend of supplements intended to aid in telomerase production. 

Liz Blackburn, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her co-discovery of telomerase, is herself doubtful of Teloyears and similar companies’ claims. Blackburn co-founded the company Telome Health with the intent of using her research to detect health problems early on. However, after the company committed itself to selling a product designed to increase telomerase activity, Blackburn left. The science linking telomere length to human health is still shaky, and there is reason to believe that increased telomerase activity could increase risks of cancer.

Telomerase allows cells to escape the natural cell aging process, sometimes leading to cancer. Many cancer cells have shortened telomeres yet continue to divide due to telomerase being active in those cells. Telomerase repairs these shortened telomeres, allowing cancer cells to further divide and tumors to grow and grow. While increasing telomerase activity is viewed by some as the key to extending human life, inhibiting telomerase is being researched by others as a potential way to treat cancer.

As Blackburn notes, there is no single healthy telomere length for humans to have. Mice have telomeres significantly longer than those of humans, yet their average lifespan in years can be counted on one hand. What’s more, telomere length can vary between cells, leading to inaccurate measurements often profited off by biotech companies. Attempting to simplify the process of human aging down to the action of a single enzyme is a ridiculous task. Still, billionaires like Bezos and Thiel have invested in Unity Biotechnology, a company dedicated to “extending the human healthspan”. Sergey Brin and Larry Page have invested millions in the similar company Calico. Both companies are investigating telomeres as a potential fountain of youth.

While it will like be a bit before any human is able to surpass the age of El Palo Alto, we can trust the billionaires around us to keep waiting. If you wish to lengthen your telomeres without the aid of questionable supplements, scientists recommend doing what anyone else would do if they wanted to prevent aging: exercise, and eat a varied, balanced diet.