A new paper in The New England Journal of Medicine details the unfortunate finding that a leading method theorized to reverse aging may cause cancer.

Researchers have long studied the role of Telomeres, protective caps of non-coding nucleotides on the ends of DNA strands, in aging. Over time these caps gradually shorten in the process of cellular division.

Telomeres have an important protective function, which is why problems may arise when they shorten. Without the protection telomeres provide, cells decay and die. This degradation seems to be one of the main drivers of age-related disease.

Scientists hypothesized that if they could lengthen these caps they could potentially reverse at least some of the symptoms of aging. While this hypothesis has not yet been fully fleshed out, it continues to be a promising avenue in the battle against aging.

Researchers Emily Deboy, Michael Tassia, Kristen Schratz et al. think that they have found a major issue with this potential solution to aging. Lengthened telomeres, they found, seem to increase risk of tumors forming.

They also believe that lengthened telomeres lead to mutated blood cells which can cause blood cancer.

The group of researchers looked at 17 people from 5 separate families with a rare gene called POT1. This gene influences a protein that regulates another protein responsible for adding telomeres to DNA strands. One of the unique outcomes of this gene is that telomeres are longer.

The study revealed that 8 out of 12 subjects analyzed had tumors (skin, thyroid, and brain tumors), a significantly higher rate than normal. The researchers think that because the longer telomeres make DNA replication take longer, there is more time for mutations to occur. An increased number of mutations can then lead to cancer.

This study doesn’t totally wreck the idea that lengthened telomeres could be beneficial in fighting aging. Firstly, all scientific findings require replication by independent researchers before they can be fully accepted.

Additionally, the study’s relatively small sample size and unique methodology may have introduced confounding variables that could alter the results.. For example, the presence of POT1 may have other effects that are causing the increased risk of tumors.\

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