Q&A with Elizabeth Blackburn (2009 Nobel laureate), PMWC 2018 SV Honoree

We had a chance to sit down with Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn to discuss telomeres and telomerase and their impact on the human lifespan.

To learn more about the different AI and machine learning sessions planned for PMWC 2018 SV, see the full agenda here.

Q: Your research and discovery around telomeres has been groundbreaking. Why are telomeres so important and what can we learn about them for future applications such as extending life span?

A: Science continues to uncover ever more critical details about telomeres and telomerase, the enzyme that makes and nourishes telomeres. Telomeres are linked with aging and aging-related diseases, such as stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and, in more complex ways, most human cancers. The next step is to interpret this knowledge into ways to combat and even prevent diseases. While some research has fed a hope that controlling the activity of telomerase could keep us healthier, that would, however, mean managing the consequent and poorly understood potential increase in risks for cancers. Early impactful research has shown that shutting down telomerase, or disabling telomeres while a cell is dividing, for example, causes a cancer cell to die. Such insights may prove valuable in creating better therapies for killing cancers. So, yes, telomeres are very important in human life and health, but for many more reasons than the potential to extend life span.

Q: Do we have enough data (time course over many years from same set of individuals) that demonstrate that living healthy has a direct impact on telomere length?

A: Indeed we do. Relevant data has accumulated in thousands of published, peer-reviewed studies over the last thirty or so years. At an increasing pace, data is appearing to demonstrate that eating nutritious foods, getting ample sleep, exercising regularly, managing stress, and engaging in positive social interactions all support telomere maintenance. Because this data has such strong relevance for trying to live a healthier life, Elissa Epel and I co-authored a book called The Telomere Effect to share this data in a readable format with the public.

Q: Will we one day be able to extend shortened telomere length and as a result extend life span? How much is life span a multifactorial process, i.e.,an interplay between telomeres and other factors, like genetic factors?

A: Life span is most certainly a multifactorial process, involving genetics and epigenetics, environment, nutrition, psychology and daily behaviors. It is too simplistic and even dangerous to suggest that merely extending telomere length will result in an extended life span. For example, telomerase is linked with certain cancers. Research has shown that telomerase activity in malignant cancer cells is turned up ten to hundreds of times as high as in normal cells. Finding a way to turn off telomerase, targeting only the cancer cells, might one day be a potent weapon for fighting cancer. Paradoxically, however, some types of cancers are more likely to develop when too little available telomerase makes telomeres shorter. This occurs in blood cancers like leukemia, in skin cancers besides melanoma, and in some gastrointestinal cancers, such as pancreatic cancer.

Telomerase activity presents a delicate balancing act and scientists are delving deep into studies about the molecular switches that control this enzyme. Further sophistication of our knowledge may allow us to someday tune the telomerase activity in aging cells or modulate it downward in cancer cells. In the meantime, exercise, good sleep, healthful diets, positive social interactions and managing stress remain the best bets for extending healthspan.

Q: What does the future have in stake to harness the power of telomerase and telomere length for the human population? If aging can be slowed, can we also slow chronic diseases or should they and will they be treated individually?

A: The more that scientists examine the intricacies of the human body, right down to the molecular level, the more we realize how interconnected all of these mechanisms are. Thus, manipulating one mechanism has the potential to positively or negatively impact other mechanisms. It’s essential to proceed carefully. Ideally, if we can slow aging while preserving health, we should also be able to slow development of the chronic diseases associated with aging.

Q: How will precision medicine extend life span and through what means?

A: Precision medicine will extend life span because it will help doctors determine more expediently the precise therapeutic that will be most effective on an individual patient. No single physician can have knowledge of every single study and its results. But by compiling data from all of the scientific and medical studies, and including all of the various specifics, such as which genetic profile is most likely to be affected by which drug, doctors will be able to avoid the trial-and-error approach toward identifying an effective therapeutic and thus will be able to extend the healthful lives of their patients. And similarly, precision prevention will be even more powerful.

Q: What issues/challenges will arise with an ever-growing “older” population? What impact will it have on health care?

A: According to a recent NIH report, 8.5% of the world’s population is currently age 65 or over; by 2050 the percentage will rise to 17%, or 1.6 billion people. An aging population that doesn’t manage, through scientific or technological progress, to maintain health and therefore delay the onset of aging-related diseases will strain the resources of both society and the planet. We will require more hospitals and more long-term care facilities and also more specially trained staff. Individual, family and broader socio-economic burdens will increase as well. That’s why so many scientists at the Salk Institute are pursuing research into the mechanisms of the aging process.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: I believe we must look to and depend upon scientific discovery to solve the world’s problems. If government leaders united in a diversified global strategy for investing in scientific research, we could create a better world—one in which the planet’s environment is thriving, every person as a reliable supply of nutritious food, and people live long, productive lives.