Cancer Center
Senior Health

A Cellular "Switch" That Could Battle Aging and Cancer

Scientists have found a new “switch” in cells that may be key to healthy aging.

Cells are constantly dividing, replacing tissue in organs such as the lungs, skin and liver. But that process eventually stops when a “timekeeper,” called a telomere, becomes too short and thus prevents any further division. (Telomeres are found at the end of each cell.)

There is an enzyme called telomerase, which rebuilds telomeres and can stop the degeneration process. But until this most recent study, by researchers from the Salk Institute, scientists hadn’t realized that telomerase has an “off” switch as well as an “on” switch.

“We were surprised to discover instead that telomerase has what is in essence an ‘off’ switch, whereby it disassembles,” said senior author Vicki Lundblad, professor and holder of Salk’s Ralph S. and Becky O’Connor Chair.

Understanding how the “off” switch works could eventually lead to treatments for diseases of aging. It may also contribute to anti-cancer treatments since cancer involves unregulated cell growth, and the ability to turn off that growth could be a significant weapon.

The study, published in the journal Genes and Development, focused on a single-celled organism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same yeast used to make wine and bread.

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