July 29 - A blood test that determines the length of telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that wear down as we get old, are now on sale to the public. The researchers who developed the test say it will allow people to get a sense of how fast they are aging. Opponents say the test is too simplistic and insist that telomere length is only one factor in the aging process. Jim Drury reports.
Spanish researchers have developed a simple blood test which they say can help people discover how fast they're ageing. Sold by Madrid based biotech company Life Length, the test also promises to pinpoint which diseases a person is likely to contract. It works by measuring the lengths of patients' telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that wear down as we get old. Maria Blasco helped develop the test. (SOUNDBITE) (Spanish) MARIA BLASCO, DIRECTOR OF THE MOLECULAR ONCOLOGY PROGRAMME AT THE SPANISH NATIONAL CANCER RESEARCH CENTRE (CNIO) AND CO-FOUNDER OF LIFE LENGTH, SAYING: "Life Length is a company which is focused in measuring in a very precise manner telomere length. This is an indication of the degree of ageing of an organism, so it can be an estimate of the biological age of tissues and cells and it is also an estimate of the risk to develop a certain number of diseases that have already been described in the literature to be associated with having shorter telomeres than normal." The test is available for sale online and Life Length has received samples from across Europe and the U.S. The company says patients will be able to make specific lifestyle changes based on their results to improve their health. Company CEO Stephen Matlin says the technology's potential is enormous. (SOUNDBITE) (English) STEPHEN MATLIN, CEO AND CO-FOUNDER OF LIFE LENGTH, SAYING: "Just as the cholesterol test led to the pharmaceutical industry developing what is the most important prescribed medicine today in terms of sales, which is Lipitor, we will believe this will also support the pharmaceutical and clinical and university industry in developing a drug that will potentially allow us to lengthen our lives through impacting telomere length." The test isn't without controversy. Some critics fear life insurance companies could use the information to hike up premiums or deny cover to those deemed high risk. Others, such as British telomere expert Dr Tom Vulliamy, say the test is flawed. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. TOM VULLIAMY, SENIOR LECTURER IN MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AT QUEEN MARY UNIVERSITY LONDON AND EXPERT ON TELOMERES, SAYING: "I would not be wanting to volunteer for this kind of test because I think it's not that informative and I don't think they're being particularly clear. Okay, they're going to get a very good, accurate measurement of the telomere length, no doubt. It's a fantastic test in that respect but what that information then gives you, I don't think they're being particularly clear." Vulliamy had his telomeres tested and found they were comparatively short, but he's not worried by the results. He also says the technology could prove useful if a more extensive model is developed. SOUNDBITE (English) DR. TOM VULLIAMY, SENIOR LECTURER IN MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AT QUEEN MARY UNIVERSITY LONDON AND EXPERT ON TELOMERES, SAYING: "Rather than just taking a snapshot, a one-off, and comparing me to the general population, maybe we could do repeat measurements and see how the rate of telomere shortening might impact, and I think I might be more interested in that. If my telemores were shortening at a rapid rate I might actually be a bit more concerned." The test isn't cheap, costing more than 700 dollars. With the science still in its infancy, it will many years before a visit to the doctor includes the question "How long are your telomeres?" Jim Drury, Reuters