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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Avandia Goes Out | Main | Like Charges, Er, Attract? »

May 19, 2011

Get Yer Telomeres Measured, Step Right Up

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Posted by Derek

Hmm. Remember when the Nobel Prize came out for telomere research? Now there are competing companies offering telomere-length screening, and one of them (Telome Sciences) was partly founded by Elizabeth Blackburn, one of the Nobel awardees. That isn't going down well with. . .one of the other awardees:

But among the critics of such tests is Carol Greider, a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University, who was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize with Dr. Blackburn.

Dr. Greider acknowledged that solid evidence showed that the 1 percent of people with the shortest telomeres were at an increased risk of certain diseases, particularly bone marrow failure and pulmonary fibrosis, a fatal scarring of the lungs. But outside of that 1 percent, she said, “The science really isn’t there to tell us what the consequences are of your telomere length.”

Dr. Greider said that there was great variability in telomere length. “A given telomere length can be from a 20-year-old or a 70-year-old,” she said. “You could send me a DNA sample and I couldn’t tell you how old that person is.”

Grieder is also a former student of Blackburn's, which makes things even messier. I can see why she's uneasy. Looking over the news accounts, there's an awful lot of noise and hype - all kinds of stuff about "Test Predicts How Long You'll Live!" and so on. The hype has been building for some time, though, and I'll bet that we're nowhere near the crest. As for me, I'm not rushing out to check my telomeres until I know what that means (and until I know if there's anything I can do about it).

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News | Business and Markets


1. anchor on May 19, 2011 1:32 PM writes...

Derek : Is there any study out there that correlates shorter telomere with shorter life and vice-versa? The ugly head of capitalism at its worst and prying on people.

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2. pete on May 19, 2011 1:39 PM writes...

I'm sure Fox News & The Donald will be now be clamoring for release of Obama's "T-length" number.

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3. NO pharmacolgist on May 19, 2011 2:06 PM writes...

No worse than Dr. Ignarro and Niteworks.

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4. Anonymous on May 19, 2011 2:36 PM writes...

The main study that people have used to justify this are the telomerase knockout mice. After a few generations, they started exhibiting symptoms of premature senescence.

Carol Greider is right, though. Telomere length in a given sample of cells from a given individual will vary wildly.

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5. Andy on May 19, 2011 2:57 PM writes...

This is exactly the kind of nonsense that is going to push the FDA to stricter regulation of molecular diagnostics.

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6. HelicalZz on May 19, 2011 3:23 PM writes...

5. Andy

Exactly right.


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7. johnnyboy on May 19, 2011 3:43 PM writes...

And maybe...that's a good thing ?

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8. Esteban on May 19, 2011 3:56 PM writes...

Seems Ms. Blackburn has opted to get paid a second time for winning the Nobel. This instance of course diminishes rather than enhances her standing in the scientific community.

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9. Anonymous on May 19, 2011 4:25 PM writes...

I got a good chuckle out of this statement in the NYTimes article: "One study in Utah, using blood samples from 143 elderly people collected in the 1980s, found that those with shorter telomeres were almost twice as likely to die in the ensuing years as those with longer ones." The likelihood of ALL of us dying in the "ensuing years" is 100%, so I guess the people with shorter telomeres will die twice. With this level of scientific/statistical literacy, is it any wonder Telome figured they could make a quick buck off this? P.T. Barnum would enjoy this.

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10. Anonymous on May 19, 2011 5:04 PM writes...

I'm sure Fox News & The Donald will be now be clamoring for release of Obama's "T-length" number.

"7You call that a telomere?"

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11. Jose on May 20, 2011 2:42 AM writes...

Well, at least Dr. Blackburn has a long, long way to go before she hits the quackery/insanity level of Kary Mullis!

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12. milkshaken on May 20, 2011 6:45 AM writes...

Writing on the wall - I wonder if your telomeres elongate when you repent.

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13. Matt on May 20, 2011 8:59 AM writes...

Ok, telomere length is of questionable utility, but now that you can have your SNP's analyzed for $99 - how many folks here would do that?

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14. johnnyboy on May 20, 2011 10:56 AM writes...

@13 - i've thought about it, briefly. But then decided I wouldn't do it until someone could tell me in exact terms what the hell the results meant. Which isn't the case at the moment, AFAIK.

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15. DrSnowboard on May 20, 2011 1:58 PM writes...

"I'm afraid Mrs Lowe, Rapture Insurance Inc will not be paying out on your husbands policy as you failed to inform us that he had his telomere length measured in 2011 and they were found to be very short. Yes, I realise it probably had no bearing on his subsequent collision with that bus, but it was a material fact about our risk that you failed to disclose...."

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16. GW on May 22, 2011 11:52 PM writes...

I guess this kind of proves who did the actual work which led to the Nobel Prize! I would trust Greider's judgment in this matter far more than Blackburn's. I'm sure we all had to deal with supervisors who happily put their names on our work without really understanding it.

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17. Jonadab on May 23, 2011 7:14 AM writes...

> But outside of that 1 percent, she said, “The
> science really isn’t there to tell us what the
> consequences are of your telomere length.”

So, then, is there any material reason we shouldn't let this woman's company measure a whole bunch of them and consequently have a lot more data about it than we have at present?

I must be missing something. Is Blackburn making unwarranted assertions about the results, or something?

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18. Rick on May 25, 2011 9:04 AM writes...

Jonadab, #17,
The problem with your scenario is that Blackburn would be basically charging people for her research. Insofar as her company suggests that the results could inform people about their lifespan to induce them to pay for the test, that's a misrepresentation, which is unethical at best.

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19. Anonymous on May 25, 2011 9:17 PM writes...

I strongly disagree with the "hide the information from people until we know what it means" school. Getting lead users to pay for research is a perfectly legitimate way to make technical progress--as long as the uncertainties are made clear. I would be 100% behind a business that, say, gathered metabolic data from a large group of people via sensors in the toilet, correlated it with diet and exercise data from those customers, and generated comparative reports--even if we didn't know what it all meant. Or imagine a cheap home ultrasound machine, used for education or entertainment, that could turn out to be clinically useful if linked to a large database over the Internet. That kind of thing is an important path to progress.

Beyond that, the idea of the FDA telling us what information we can get about our own bodies should give everyone the hives. Although I guess it's one way to protect the insurance companies against adverse selection problems...

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