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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 14:36 GMT
Secrets of ageing revealed
Telomeres
Telomeres stop genetic material unravelling
Scientists have found a way to measure the tiny mechanism within the body's cells which many believe may hold the key to the ageing process.

The researchers believe the technique will help efforts to pin down the causes of disease such as cancer that become more common as we get older.

This is a huge step forward for understanding illness in later life

Mike Lake
It is widely thought that the number of times a cell can divide - and thus reinvigorate tissue - is controlled by the length of a microscopic structure called a telomere.

These structures are found on the end of our chromosomes and in effect stop them from unravelling, acting in the same way as the shiny bit at the end of the bootlace.

However, they get shorter each time a human cell duplicates.

At a certain length the cell stops duplicating altogether.

It is thought that this failure may be behind the ageing process as cells which can no longer divide change the way they work and are capable of actively degrading the tissue/organ in which they reside.

Therefore, it is an advantage to have longer telomeres, as this means cells will keep dividing for longer.

Single cells

Previously it has only been possible to establish an average telomere length from hundreds of thousands of cells.

The new technique, called STELA, can measure telomere length in a single cell from any tissue sample - and pinpoint the shortest ones which are most likely to cause trouble.

It is developed from a technique used in forensic science, where often only a very small amount of DNA is available for analysis.

Using the technique Dr Duncan Baird, of the University of Wales, has shown that telomeres are considerably shorter than previously thought at the point that the cell stops dividing.

He has also shown that there are large differences in the length of telomeres passed on from each of our parents - suggesting that genetics plays a significant role in longevity.

Dr Baird told BBC News Online: "Essentially STELA will allow us to find out whether telomere erosion has anything to do with ageing in humans."

"It may also be of use in analysing the early stages of cancer-early pre-malignant situations."

Mike Lake, Director General of Help The Aged, said: "This is a huge step forward for understanding illness in later life.

"Research into what is happening to our bodies as we get older is vital to enable improvements in medical treatments for older people now and in the future."

Details of the research are published in the journal Nature Genetics.

See also:

28 Jul 99 | Science/Nature
20 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
31 Dec 02 | Health
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