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Telomere Biology: Cancer Firewall or Aging Clock?

J. J. Mitteldorf

Department of EAPS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA 02138, USA; E-mail:

Received February 15, 2013 It has been a decade since the first surprising discovery that longer telomeres in humans are statistically associated with longer life expectancies. Since then, it has been firmly established that telomere shortening imposes an individual fitness cost in a number of mammalian species, including humans. But telomere shortening is easily avoided by application of telomerase, an enzyme which is coded into nearly every eukaryotic genome, but whose expression is suppressed most of the time. This raises the question how the sequestration of telomerase might have evolved. The predominant assumption is that in higher organisms, shortening telomeres provide a firewall against tumor growth. A more straightforward interpretation is that telomere attrition provides an aging clock, reliably programming lifespans. The latter hypothesis is routinely rejected by most biologists because the benefit of programmed lifespan applies only to the community, and in fact the individual pays a substantial fitness cost. There is a long-standing skepticism that the concept of fitness can be applied on a communal level, and of group selection in general. But the cancer hypothesis is problematic as well. Animal studies indicate that there is a net fitness cost in sequestration of telomerase, even when cancer risk is lowered. The hypothesis of protection against cancer has never been tested in animals that actually limit telomerase expression, but only in mice, whose lifespans are not telomerase-limited. And human medical evidence suggests a net aggravation of cancer risk from the sequestration of telomerase, because cells with short telomeres are at high risk of neoplastic transformation, and they also secrete cytokines that exacerbate inflammation globally. The aging clock hypothesis…
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