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Do Telomeres Have a Role in Cancer?

Q: My fiancée and I have been taking TA-65 for almost a year, but when I told one of my doctors about it he was concerned. He said he was offered an opportunity to dispense TA-65 but is not convinced of its benefits and he’s concerned about whether it raises the risk of cancer in people with a personal or family history. My fiancé had a tumor removed from his colon six years ago. Could you give me your response to my doctor’s concern?

A:  The question of whether a person who has a history of cancer  should take TA-65 should be discussed with the physician through whom it will be or is being purchased. (It can only be dispensed by a physician who is a licensee of TA Sciences, the company that markets TA-65 as a nutritional supplement.) I will give you my views as a licensee who is on the company’s scientific advisory board. In this role, I helped design and conduct a study of the potential benefits of TA-65 that was published in Rejuvenation Research in 2010. (I have no financial interest in the company.) In addition to the clinical study described in that paper, here are a few things you can share with your physician regarding TA-65 and cancer: Though our knowledge is incomplete in the area of telomere lengthening and cancer, the preponderance of data thus far lead me to conclude that TA-65 should not increase the risk of cancer, either initially or after it has been treated. Some 95 percent of clinically important cancers (those that are growing uncontrollably and may kill the patient) have already acquired a mutation that activates telomerase very potently—that’s how they can continue to divide indefinitely.  So adding a little telomerase activation from a modest telomerase activator like TA-65 to an already malignant cancer cell is likely adding a drop to a bucket already being filled with a hose. That might sound as if telomerase could indeed help promote cancer, but in fact the opposite may be true. I believe that our current understanding of the role of telomerase and telomeres in cancer indicates that telomerase activators could well be one of the best ways to prevent many of the common cancers that increase in prevalence as adults age. There are many biological and molecular reasons to explain this paradox, which I will be discussing here in the coming months, but the big news is that there is some strong early evidence that keeping our telomeres healthy may be a key in cancer prevention. To date, the most notable study of telomere length and cancer was published in Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010. The study involved 787 older adults who had never had cancer. Following them for 10 years, the researchers found a stunning correlation between shortened telomeres and cancer incidence. Those with a baseline telomere length in the bottom third of the group had a 300 percent increased risk of getting one of the common cancers compared with those in the top third—and a 1,200 percent increased risk of dying from cancer. That is pretty strong evidence in favor of a substance like TA-65 that can activate the enzyme that maintains telomere length. In the meantime, another study that may clarify the question is in the works in Spain. Researchers there are planning to give individuals with stage IV colon cancer either TA-65 or a placebo to see if it has an effect on their length of survival.

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