Telomeres, Telomerase and Cancer; February 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Greider, Blackburn; 6 Page(s)
Often in nature things are not what they seem. A rock on the seafloor may be a poisonous fish; a beautiful flower in a garden may be a carnivorous insect lying in wait for prey. This misleading appearance extends to certain components of cells, including chromosomes--the strings of linear DNA that contain the genes. At one time, the DNA at the ends of chromosomes seemed to be static. Yet in most organisms that have been studied, the tips, called telomeres, are actually ever changing; they shorten and lengthen repeatedly.
During the past 15 years, investigation of this unexpected flux has produced a number of surprising discoveries. In particular, it has led to identification of an extraordinary enzyme named telomerase that acts on telomeres and is thought to be required for the maintenance of many human cancers. This last finding has sparked much speculation that drugs able to inhibit the enzyme might combat a wide array of malignancies. The research also opens the possibility that changes in telomere length over time may sometimes play a role in the aging of human cells.