ATLANTA - One night, perhaps a week ago now, I was at the computer working on another article and half listening to the television, my normal weeknight routine. Usually I have the idiot box tuned to something I can at least half-heartedly justify as enriching programming (usually).
PBS was my choice that night. As I racked my brain for an intriguing angle for my article, I heard the evening announcer say a name I hadn't heard in about two or three years: Elizabeth Blackburn. Dr. Blackburn happens to be a Nobel Prize winning geneticist who studies an immensely interesting aspect of DNA.
The telomere, a microscopic chromosome "cap," acts as a barrier against genetic degradation. Dr. Blackburn often uses the analogy of a shoestring and the plastic tip at the end of the shoestring to describe the relationship between the two DNA carriers. The telomere being the tip that keeps the shoestring (chromsome) from fraying.
Verterbrae cells only have a finite number of divisions. We see evidence of this as aging, cancers, and other cellular or genetic diseases. Many of these divisions are directly impacted by the health of the telomere at the ends of an organism's chromosomes.
Telomerase is an enzyme that encourages the growth of telomeres. In lab trials the results have been, well, astounding. The enzyme basically tells cells to keep dividing, forever.
The implications, of course are tremendous. Dr. Blackburn's reaserch is very likely going to lead to an entirely new genetic industry: online enzyme wholesalers and strip mall "gene lift" shops, where you go to add a few years. Back alley gene splicers that supply the masses with their daily fix of telomerase gels. A dystopian future, thoroughly controlled by big pharma.
Death in that world will only be a reality for those who cannot afford the cure.
OK, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself a little bit, but this is certainly something to keep an eye on. I began following Dr. Blackburn's research, as I said, about two or three years ago, and have been thoroughly intrigued ever since. While the work does seem to be in the early stages (no patents have been filed, no new drugs have been developed), the outlook does indeed appear bright.
Humanity my have finally reached a place where we can eliminate our greatest fear and oldest enemy. The good doctor Blackburn and her team have given us the keys to immortality; it's up to the rest of us now to unlock the door.
Benjamin Burton Jr. 8/3/2012