As a taxi takes me across Madrid to the laboratories of Spain’s National Cancer Research Center, I am fretting about the future. I am one of the first people in the world to provide a blood sample for a new test, which has been variously described as a predictor of how long I will live, a waste of time or a handy indicator of how well (or badly) my body is aging. Today I get the results.
Some newspapers, to the dismay of the scientists involved, have gleefully announced that the test, which measures the telomeres (the protective caps) on the ends of my chromosomes, can predict when I will die. Am I about to find out that, at least statistically, my days are numbered? And, if so, might new telomere research suggesting we can turn back the hands of the body’s clock and make ourselves “biologically younger” come to my rescue?
The test is based on the idea that biological aging grinds at your telomeres. And, although time ticks by uniformly, our bodies age at different rates. Genes, environment and our own personal habits all play a part in that process. A peek at your telomeres is an indicator of how you are doing. Essentially, they tell you whether you have become biologically younger or older than other people born at around the same time.
The key measure, explains Maria Blasco, a 45-year-old molecular biologist, head of Spain’s cancer research center and one of the world’s leading telomere researchers, is the number of short telomeres. Blasco, who is also one of the cofounders of the Life Length company which is offering the tests, says that short telomeres do not just provide evidence of aging. They also cause it. Often compared to the plastic caps on a shoelace, there is a critical level at which the fraying becomes irreversible and triggers cell death. “Short telomeres are causal of disease because when they are below a [certain] length they are damaging for the cells. The stem cells of our tissues do not regenerate and then we have aging of the tissues,” she explains. That, in a cellular nutshell, is how aging works. Eventually, so many of our telomeres are short that some key part of our body may stop working.
The research is still in its early days but extreme stress, for example, has been linked to telomere shortening. I think back to a recent working day that took in three countries, three news stories, two international flights, a public lecture and very little sleep. Reasonable behavior, perhaps, for someone in their 30s — but I am closer to my 50s. Do days like that shorten my expected, or real, lifespan?
People with similar worries — or, perhaps, just Woody Allen-style neuroses about their health — have begun to contact the company set up by Blasco. Requests have poured in from around the world since a headline writer at the London-based Independent, perhaps misled by Life Length’s ambiguous name, invited readers to find out about “The ￡400 (US$630) test that tells you how long you’ll live.” The Internet did the rest.
Originally set up to help researchers and the pharmaceutical, health food and cosmetics industries test the impact of their products on telomeres, the flood of individual requests has caught Blasco’s still tiny company by surprise. But the test is available, as of this month, via doctors in Spain and Portugal and there are plans to make it easier to carry out in the UK and the US as soon as possible. It sees a potential gold mine in testing of what it calls people’s “biological age” — though it is by no means alone in the field. So what can Blasco tell me about my test?