Telomeres, Aging and Astragalus

Kristen Sparrow • July 15, 2011

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, recent Nobel Prize Winner from UCSF, published groundbreaking work on telomeres, proteins at the end of chromosomes, and how they are a measure of aging. A recent post on the effects of stress on certain chronic diseases is here. This article in the San Francisco Chronicle discusses a new company which will allow telomere testing to the public. There are many topics I would love to riff on about this whole topic, but the main reason I needed to bring this to your attention is a paragraph at the end, where her partner Harvey “Harley offers astragalus root extract, meant to stimulate telomere growth, to any takers.” I can’t tell you how amazing this is to me. I’ve been giving Astragalus to my patients, especially the formula Astra Essence from Health Concerns, ever since I set up my practice in 1998. It is a longevity formula and I take it religiously every day. I had no idea it had been implicated with telomere growth. The ancients really knew what they were doing. Astonishing. I’ll try to dig up more on the science for later posts. (I’m linking to the whole article so you have context.) (For more info about my practice, please click here.) (For more information about acupuncture and stress please click here.)

Telome Health of Menlo Park tests age of DNA

Nellie Bowles, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, July 11, 2011
Lab scientist Saker Karimi (left) and biochemist Cal Harl… Longevity marker Telomeres are the necessary “cap” or end… Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn helped found Telome He… More…

In 1989, biochemist Cal Harley took DNA samples of his entire family, from his 9-year-old daughter to his 74-year-old father.

Before Thanksgiving dinner 20 years later, he repeated the test.

Not only did the family look older (some taller, others grayer), but so did their DNA. Looking at the length of their telomeres, the tiny protective caps on the ends of DNA, Harley could see they had aged, becoming shorter. While his daughter’s telomeres were just a little shorter, Harley’s had been shrinking drastically.

“I was experiencing accelerated aging,” Harley says, shaking his head. “I started exercising after that. And I realized this could be more than just fun with the family. So I called up Liz.” Liz happens to be Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, the UCSF biologist who discovered the telomere and an old colleague of Harley’s. “She’s hesitant about mixing science and industry, but this was a matter of public health,” Harley says.

Thus was born Telome Health Inc., founded by Harley and Blackburn, along with “deal man” CEO Dan Hunt, UCSF social psychologist Elissa Epel and UCSF biologist Jue Lin. The Menlo Park company provides telomere analyses for $199, making it the first to offer affordable, accessible telomere testing for the public.
Consumer-friendly test

Harley knew well that traditional genome science had failed in its grand goal of using DNA to determine everything from personality to disease risk. Scientists, so focused on the individual nucleotides that make up our genetic code, missed something larger: The way we treat our genes may be more important than what those genes might be.

Enter the humble telomere. Once cast aside in textbooks and by genome coders as “junk DNA,” these delicate noncoding strings that dangle off the DNA can show how we’ve lived – how hard we’ve been drinking, how much we’ve been eating, smoking and stressing out.

Telomeres shorten each time our cells duplicate, shedding tiny nucleotides off their tips until they become stubby and frayed, and we die. Several studies have shown or suggested that if we lose weight, take Omega-3s or meditate, the telomere shortening process can slow down. Some small observational studies suggest telomeres can even lengthen.

Now, only three years after their discovery, telomere tests may become part of every regular doctor appointment from birth to well-predicted death.

“We want it to be like getting your cholesterol checked,” says Blackburn, with her thick Tasmanian accent, “only it’s of course much better.”

The test is simple and consumer friendly: Ask your doctor to order the test, and a package will be delivered to your doorstep. Spit in the company-provided vial and mail it back to the lab. Two weeks later, you’ll receive your TeloAge (your telomere’s length compared to that of the general population) and HealthSpan (the number of healthy years you have left), along with a sleek graph showing your projected decline.

Morbid but, for many, fascinating.
2 markets for testing

Many Americans are obsessed with self-monitoring and pseudoscience, clinging to the heart-rate monitor of their Ellipticals, running to the click of a pedometer, watching an agile Dr. Mehmet Oz chastise the obese with elaborate mock-ups of what their organs surely look like. Men’s Health magazine, with a worldwide circulation of 15 million, once ran a cancer probability calculator next to sex tips.

In another era, telomeres might have been studied more thoroughly before scientists rolled out what they bill as a stopwatch on your life. But the work on telomeres transpired in San Francisco, not Cambridge, and with Silicon Valley’s influence, things move quickly.

At Telome Health Inc.’s Menlo Park office, the atmosphere is jovial. CEO Hunt sees two markets for telomere testing. First, for physicians with seriously ill patients, to determine whether a medical intervention would be worthwhile – in other words, to see if a patient is near death. The second market is for the curious private consumer, and the company plans to eventually sell the kit directly to individuals.

The ideal routine, Blackburn says, is to test every three months to see how rapidly telomeres are shortening and whether the rate is increasing or decreasing.

Some experts are worried, however, that Telome Health Inc. is marketing telomere tests to the public too soon.

“As a matter of overall public benefit, I’m not sure I see that they add societal value,” says UC Berkeley bioethicist David Winickoff.

Bruce Ames and Kathleen Collins, aging experts in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Berkeley, are cautiously optimistic.

“My own suspicion is that telomeres shorten faster with bad nutrition. Americans are eating this god-awful diet,” Ames says. “But giving out TeloAge? Seems a little premature. … Whether or not telomeres actually lengthen has still not definitively been shown.”

“But if people had waited to circulate aspirin,” Collins counters, “a lot of people would be dead.”
Insurance worries

Harley believes that any new information about health is always useful, though he is concerned that life insurance companies might take advantage of the telomere test results to increase premiums. That, he says, “would be a deep perversion of our technology.”

In Telome headquarters, Harley offers astragalus root extract, meant to stimulate telomere growth, to any takers. He hasn’t managed to lengthen his telomeres yet, but with running and weight loss, he says he has slowed their shrinking. “It’s not easy knowing my telomeres are short,” Harley leans back in his chair and sighs, “but it’s good to know.”