3 hallmarks of aging can save you from cancer — here is how

Small talk between telomeres and mitochondria can kill cancer.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Telomere stock image.
Telomere stock image.


A team of biologists at the San Diego-based Salk Institute claims in their recent study that as humans get older, the protective end caps of their chromosomes, called telomeres, start interacting with mitochondria. 

This interaction further triggers inflammatory responses that promote the killing of cancer cells in the human body. Many of us don’t know this, but cancer is one of the biggest enemies of humanity, killing about ten million people every year across the globe. 

Every sixth death in the world is because of cancer. The new research from Salk sheds light on a new kind of anti-cancer action in the human body, and therefore it has the potential to give rise to novel strategies for treating and preventing the disease. 

Connecting aging with telomeres, chromosomes, and cancer

Telomeres are protective coverings found at the end of our chromosomes. They are made up of repetitious DNA sequences and prevent chromosome ends from sticking to each other or getting damaged. They also play important role in cell division, deciding the extent to which a cell can divide (with regard to its size).

Every time a cell undergoes division, the telomeres of the cell become shorter. As we age and cells keep on dividing, there comes a time when telomeres become so small that further cell division could damage the cell chromosomes. In this case, the cell eventually dies, and this process is known as “crisis.” 

According to the researchers, the elimination of cells (which undergo crisis) from our body is called autophagy. This natural cell death and removal mechanism prevents the formation and occurrence of cancer in humans. 

The researchers discovered that the interaction between telomeres and mitochondria triggers inflammatory immunity signals in the body similar to those that our immune system employs to fight viruses. 

They further explain that when telomeres of cell chromosomes become very short. They communicate with mitochondria and release RNA molecules which makes immune sensors (called MAVS and ZBP1) found on the outer surface of mitochondria active. These sensors initiate a series of inflammatory immune responses in the human body that eventually ends up killing any cancerous growth or activity.

“Our findings showing that stressed telomeres send an RNA message to mitochondria to cause inflammation highlights the need to study interactions between these hallmarks to fully understand aging and perhaps intervene to increase health span in humans,” said Gerald Shadel, co-senior author and professor at the Salk Institute. 

Time to study the hallmarks of aging collectively

3 hallmarks of aging can save you from cancer — here is how
A diagram depicting telomer-mitochondria interaction.

The researchers highlight that although many scientists have been studying the changes in telomeres, mitochondria, and inflammatory pathways of the human body with aging. They never noticed the role of these changes in preventing cancer because these factors are generally studied separately and not together.  

“Telomeres, mitochondria, and inflammation are three hallmarks of aging that are most often studied in isolation,” said Professor Shadel. This is probably the first study that links all these hallmarks of aging. 

Cancer is not something that happens suddenly, it is a result of many changes taking place in cells over time. Scientists already know many cancer-causing pathways, but it is important we also identify anti-cancer interactions like the one that happens between telomeres and mitochondria. 

Such findings could help us develop better treatment therapies for this deadly disease that’s been haunting humanity for ages. 

The study is published in the journal Nature.   

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