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HealthWatch: Bay Area Scientists Work To Reset Biological Clock

MENLO PARK (CBS SF) - Scientists in Menlo Park have developed a new test to measure what may be the best biomarker of overall health status -- raising hopes that our biological clocks can be slowed, or even reset.

The test, developed at Menlo Park's Telome Health Inc., measures telomeres, protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres function in much the same way as protective tips on the ends of shoelaces - without such a tip, laces fray and unravel, become hard to tie and increase the odds of tripping.

"If the caps are eroded away, the cells stop replenishing," said Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a 2009 Nobel Laureate. "They start to produce substances which can be inflammatory and tumor-causing."

By comparing telomere length with lifestyle, the "Telo Test" could help determine whether stress can make us old before our time.

"It's sort of a check engine light," said Dr. Calvin Harley of Telome Health. "It's not necessarily diagnostic of a specific disease, but the disease risk of the body might be increasing as telomeres get shorter."

Thankfully, when it comes to telomeres it's never too late to change, and, while exercise and diet can't erase chronological years, they may help turn back the biological clock.

"Unlike a shoelace, the body does have enzymes that can build the telomeres back up," said Blackburn. It's work on that enzyme, telomerase, at UCSF and UC Berkeley, that won the Nobel Prize for Blackburn and two others (Carol Greider and Jack Szostak).

Blackburn believes telomere length can motivate people to get healthier.

"Physiological interventions like exercise and stress reduction and even certain dietary changes are positively correlated with improving telomere maintenance." Such maintenance might keep the body running smoothly for more years than would otherwise be the case.

Telome Health is recruiting volunteers from the Bay Area for the TeloTest. They will enroll up to 500 healthy people between the ages of 20 and 79. Participation involves a blood draw and a saliva collection, as well as completing a number of online questionnaires.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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