Study Associates Genes for Shorter Telomeres with Decreased Cancer Mortality

Telomeres are short stretches of repeated nucleotides that protect the ends of chromosomes. In somatic cells, these protective sequences become shorter with each cellular replication until a critical length is reached, which can trigger cell death. In actively replicating cells such as germ cells, embryonic stem cells, and blood stem cells of the bone marrow, the enzyme telomerase replenishes these protective caps to ensure adequate replication. Cancer cells also seem to have the ability to activate telomerase, which allows them to keep dividing indefinitely, with dire consequences for the patient. However, according to a study published online on April 10, 2015 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), the extent to which cancer cells can utilize telomerase may depend on which variants of the genes related to telomerase activity are expressed in an individual's cells. The article is titled “Peripheral Blood Leukocyte Telomere Length and Mortality Among 64,637 Individuals from the General Population.” Telomere shortening is an inevitable, age-related process, but it can also be exacerbated by lifestyle factors such as obesity and smoking. Thus, some previous studies have found an association between short telomeres and high mortality, including cancer mortality, while others have not. A possible explanation for the conflicting evidence may be that the association found between short telomeres and increased cancer mortality was correlational, but other factors (age and lifestyle), not adjusted for in previous studies, were the real causes. Genetic variation in several genes associated with telomere length (TERC, TERT, OBFC1) is independent of age and lifestyle.
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