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article image‘Immortality enzyme’ wins Nobel Prize for Medicine

By Paul Wallis     Oct 5, 2009 in Science
Researchers investigating an enzyme which permits unlimited cell replication have received the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The enzyme is called telomerase. Telomerase affects telomeres, parts of cells which govern cell replication.
According to Bloomberg, human genes are packed into chromosomes, which are topped by telomeres. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell divides -- except in cells with the telomerase enzyme. "When the caps get too short, the cell can’t divide anymore and dies. While the telomerase enzyme isn’t active in most human cells, which stop reproducing and eventually die, it has been found in cancer cells, the Nobel committee for the medicine prize said in a statement on its Web site."
Telomeres, when discovered a decade ago, became a subject of intense scientific speculation. Their apparent capacity to define cell replication, naturally, was a subject of equally intense debate, and ways of manipulating them were considered in a menagerie of efforts ranging from the science fiction approach to the fatalistic.
The prize was awarded to American researchers Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack W. Szostak.
This discovery is already showing signs of being a major breakthrough for medicine across a huge possible field of uses. Telomerase isn’t yet in the ballpark for therapeutic use, but it has already been the subject of some extremely important research. Telomerase is present in cancer cells, an agent which permits their growth, and telomerase inhibitors to prevent the spread of tumors are one of the lines of research being investigated. According to Bloomberg, Merck and Co and Geron are already testing vaccines for specific types of cancers. The significance of an effective growth inhibitor in this field is impossible to overstate. It could revolutionize treatment and improve survival rates immensely overnight.
The long term possibilities of telomerase as therapy are immense. The theoretical ability to restart cell replication also has many applications in degenerative diseases alone. Restoration of tissues may become a lot easier in cases of major tissue loss. Telomerase may have the ability to be a co-agent with stem cells. It may also be useful in providing growth capabilities for such stubborn types of cell as nerve and spinal column cells, where growth is incredibly slow, and recovery an ordeal for sufferers.
Telomerase and its descendant products will be part of the creation of the arsenal which finally puts an end to cancer. Whether it can become a true “immortality enzyme” remains to be seen.
More about Telomerase, Cell replication, Anti-cancer therapies
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