Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have created a DNA test that can specifically detect problems caused by stress. UCSF molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn is pioneering the idea of personalized reports on stress levels.
"We see a big market opportunity for this," Blackburn said to The Wall Street Journal. That's why she co-founded the company, Telome Health, to sell the stress tests that are based on research she is famous for: telomeres.
While telomeres were first identified in the 1930s, Blackburn was the first to describe their molecular structure in 1978. A telomere is part of a repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome, and its role is to protect the chromosomes in living cells.
The researchers think that by measuring the length of the telomere, they will be able to better monitor a person's well-being and deliver a personalized bill of health. The researchers hope the length of telomeres can predict longevity, disease risk and how likely the person will respond to certain drugs.
Blackburn was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for figuring out how chromosomes are copied during cell divisions and how they protect themselves against degradation. Blackburn looked at the ends of the chromosomes, where the enzyme called the telomerase plays a role in forming the ends. When our DNA replicates, the telomeres cap the ends.
When the telomeres become short, that's when you run into trouble.
Telomeres naturally become shorter as we age, but viral infections and other genetic and environmental factors can play a role.
Psychological stress is linked to cell aging. And if a person leads a sedentary life and is obese, he probably will have short telomeres. Additionally, Blackburn has discovered that trauma exposure, depression and other stressful conditions are linked to accelerated cell aging.
So stress can cause telomeres to shorten much faster than they naturally would.
When the telomeres start to behave badly, it triggers a DNA damage response that can cause the cells and tissue to lose their function. When this happens, the person is at risk for diseases such as cancer and infectious diseases. The shortened telomeres have been linked to a number of diseases and early mortality.
Still, the field has a fuzzy area that it's still working out: it's unclear how telomere length is linked to other types of human diseases.
Bruce McEwen, a professor at Rockefeller University, who isn't connected with the company, told the WSJ that "shorter telomeres in human cells have been associated with slower wound healing, earlier mortality, cardiovascular disease and poor immune defenses."
So what's the benefit of knowing the state of your telomeres? The company says its test can be used to "develop novel and powerful new ways to monitor health status and permit physicians to prescribe prophylactic or therapeutic intervention tailored to the needs of the individual patient."
Certainly, Blackburn has her reputation to help this DNA test gain some traction. Is it a little premature to start testing for telomeres though?
Will the telomere test be part of a regular physical checkup at your doctor's office? After all, the test isn't supposed to diagnose disease, but instead, the goal is to monitor a person's state of well-being over a period of time.
The test costs $200, but it's not for sale to the general public yet.
I wonder what the report looks like.
Would you want to know how your cells are doing? All the company needs is just a sample of your blood, cheek swabs, or saliva.
Scientists Bank on Stress-Health Link [Wall Street Journal]