Nobel laureate marketing lifespan test

Michael Cook
25 May 2013
Reproduced with Permission

The Australian winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine is leveraging her discovery to market a test which will help people know their true health status and biological age.

Elizabeth Blackburn won her award, along with two other researchers, for her work on telomeres, pieces of DNA which cap chromosomes and keep cells from ageing too soon. She discovered the telomerase enzyme which repairs the telomeres. Long telomeres are associated with longer life expectancy; short telomeres with shorter life expectancy.

She says that it is impossible to predict how much longer people have to live, but shorter telomeres may indicate bad health. Telomere length is associated with stress, for instance. Doctors could intervene earlier to prevent disease. Dr Blackburn has said that her discovery "sort of translates into a fountain of youth; the number of years of healthy living is related to telomere length. We don't think clocks will be turned back, but it is a question of whether we will extend our health span."

Full of enthusiasm, Dr Blackburn has helped formed a company, Telome Health, to market a test for telomere length.

But a controversy is brewing over whether the test is premature. Carol W. Greider, who shared the Nobel Prize with her, feel that the test is premature. Peter Lansdorp, another expert on telomere biology, told Macleans that he was sceptical. "It's too early, and it's not supported by scientific data."

One problem is that interpreting the results is difficult because there is so much individual variability. A report of short telomeres could put patients on a merry-go-round of more and more tests to discover what the original test meant. "You worry about that," she told the New York Times. "But that's not the fault of the test, is it? That's the fault of the way medicine is practiced. Let's not blame the messenger here."