Telomeres are hot. Their discovery won three scientists a 2009 Nobel Prize, and late last month they scored Titia de Lange of Rockefeller University one of the $3M inaugural Breakthrough Prizes. Telomeres are becoming just as hot in the news as they are in laboratories, as the world is beginning to take note of their importance. On the very same day as de Lange’s prize was announced, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article showing that diminished telomeres are associated with health risks in people as early as their twenties. This surprised even veteran scientists, because although it has become increasingly clear that telomeres are a primary marker for overall health, the prevailing wisdom had been that only much older people are at risk. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s answer a some fundamental questions: What are telomeres and how do they influence health?

Telomeres are the protective pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes, and they appear to have two primary and interrelated functions. First, they have a structural role in the protection of the ends of chromosomes, and in this role they’ve been compared to the caps on the ends of shoelaces. Their second function has been likened to that of clocks inside our cells because they “tick down” or shorten over time – or more precisely, with every cell division. As they wind down, so do our cells. Short telomeres are associated with senescence and failing health, and as the JAMA article showed, older people aren’t the only ones at risk.

There is growing evidence that shows that short telomeres are not only a marker of illness, but that they also play a causative role in senescence and declining health. They are only one of a few recognized aging clocks; nevertheless, they can either be short initially, tick down rapidly, or both, and short telomeres alone can cause illness and death. This has been established in many experimental and observational scientific studies, including discoveries of human telomere maintenance mutations that result in one general type of accelerated aging syndrome (for a review of some of the most compelling evidence, please visit the TeloMe website). This is why telomeres are a major focus to those of us interested in life-extension science and technology.

Important, however, is the fact that the “ticking” of the telomere clock isn’t fixed. Research indicates that lifestyle, diet, exercise, stress, environment and genetics can all play a role in the rate at which a person’s telomeres shorten. Even more important to those of us interested in engineering longer and healthier lives, substantial evidence now suggests that telomere attrition can be slowed greatly or even reversed. In its telomere research heyday, Geron Corporation isolated from plants and tested a family of compounds that possess telomere lengthening activity (by activating telomerase, the enzyme that extends telomeres). The primary active compound is called cycloastragenol, and the family of plants that produce it is called Astragalus, a species used in traditional Chinese medicine. Astragalus extract has been tested in people in pre-clinical studies, and a key result was longer telomeres. Astragalus provides some level of control over one aging clock, and hope for people with critically short telomeres.

An essential first step in evidence-based management is to get a baseline measurement, and so it is with telomeres. Measuring the length of your telomeres tells you where you stand today, and allows you to determine how you are doing over time. Therefore, before you embark on any telomere-management regimen, it is essential to know their current length. Unfortunately, commercial telomere testing has been both expensive and inaccessible. TeloMe (pronounced tella-me) developed its telomere analysis pipeline to break down these barriers.

Our goal is to make telomere testing available to all because we recognize the value of such critical information—both to individuals and to the overall scientific pursuit of longer and healthier lives. Along with TeloMe co-founder George Church, we are committed to open and personal genomics, and maximum life extension. Drs. Church and Estep are part of the core team that built the Personal Genome Project at Harvard Medical School to make genomic information and discovery accessible to everyone. TeloMe is bringing that philosophy to life-extension and life-management science, and has launched the first affordable and accessible saliva-based telomere test. We are currently offering our standard test on Indiegogo for under $100. Samples are collected by mail and shipped to our facility for processing and analysis; then, results are returned to you via your private account on our website. TeloMe is excited to provide one more tool for helping people live as well, and as long as possible. On a personal level, it gives us deep satisfaction to make an additional contribution to one of the most noble of human pursuits: the battle against human senescence and mortality.