Telomeres & Gliomas: The Link

Emily Moscarino

The Science of Aging

Telomeres: Finding The Right Balance

Telomeres are an integral part of our genetic make-up that play a vital role in our survival. As explained in the above video, telomeres are segments of repetitive nucleotide bases at the end of chromosomes. The length of telomeres effectively determines the rate at which cells deteriorate over the span of a person's life, the result of which can be seen as aging. The function of the telomere is essentially to be a "buffer" during DNA replication. The process of DNA replication is not carried out to the very ends of each chromatid. Without these meaningless repeats of DNA, important segments of DNA would be cut out during DNA replication, potentially leading to the creation of non-functional body cells. Knowing this, it is easy to see why telomeres are so important. Naturally, the next question one may ask is this: can finding a way to increase the length of telomeres, or at least decreasing the rate at which they deteriorate, increase a person's lifespan?

While it is true that longer telomeres increase the lifespan of cells, having longer telomeres may not necessarily be a good thing. The increased length of telomeres does increase the life of cells, but it may also cause cells to survive significantly longer than they were intended to. This increased longevity could lend to the formation of cancerous cells. In fact, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have recently discovered a link between two gene variants of the TERT and TERC genes and the formation of gliomas. These genes are both components of telomerase, the enzyme that controls the addition of telomeric repetitions to the ends of chromosomes. Variations in the TERT and TERC genes that are associated with the increased size of the telomere have also been connected with the formation of gliomas, a very rare deadly form of brain cancer. Furthermore, this study showed that 51% of the population carries the gene variant for TERT and 72% of the population carries the gene variant for TERC that are associated with the formation of gliomas, both shockingly high numbers to say the least. Researchers have proposed an explanation as to why this high risk gene variant is found in such a high percentage of the population for such a rare cancer. Researchers state that, " these carriers, the overall cellular robustness afforded by longer telomeres trumps the increased risk of high-grade gliomas, which are invariably fatal but relatively rare." (Mayo Clinic News Network).

The Importance: Why Does It Matter?

Though they were discovered in the 1970's, the importance of telomeres to DNA replication, the cell cycle, and by extension to the life of human beings was only recently recognized. The TERC and TERT gene variants may pose an explanation for the formation of a rare form of cancer that has a poor prognosis. This is a big clue into finding the root cause of gliomas, and may pose an explanation for other forms of cancer as well. The more the medical community understands about how cancer forms, the closer it gets to finding a cure for diseases that debilitate and kill many people.

The Impact: How Will This Change Medicine?

Research into how telomeres impact medicine has only just begun, and the discovery of the TERT and TERC gene variants is just the beginning. More studies are being conducted to further investigate the function of telomeres and how they could potentially hold the key to understanding complex issues such as aging and the formation of many types of cancer. Manipulation of the functioning of telomeres could have huge implications for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of certain cancers. If properly controlled, the manipulation of telomeres has the potential to give rise to longer lifespans for people everywhere. Whether or not it is a stretch to say that telomeres are the key to immortality, research into this area will undoubtedly shed light onto many important areas of cancer research and the negative effects of aging in a time when these two issues are all to important. Knowing what we now know about a possible cause for gliomas, as well as how many people carry a high risk gene variant for this cancer, medical professionals can use this information. We now know to look for variants in the TERC and TERT gene to identify high risk patients and work toward finding a cure for cancer.

What Does This Mean for Nurses?

Some nurses who have been out of school for many years have never been exposed to the information that has been gathered in recent years about the genetic contributions to diseases. Incorporating information regarding genetics into patient care is vital to providing the best care. With this knowledge, nurses can work more efficiently with doctors when diagnosing and caring for patients suffering from the affects of cancers such as gliomas. While nurses cannot diagnose the presence of genetic disorders themselves, having the information about a certain cancer that may be caused by variant in the TERC and TERT genes may help a nurse explore options with the doctor, helping the interprofessional team determine the best plan of care for the patient. Knowledge is the most powerful tool when it comes to patient care, no matter where the knowledge stems from. This new information about a potential cause for gliomas can also aid the interporfessional team when educating the patient.

APA Citations

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Dangor, J. (2014, June 10). Longer Telomeres, Considered Sign of Good Health, Linked to Brain Cancer Risk. Retrieved November 18, 2014, from

Cao, Y., Bryan, T., & Reddel, R. (2008). Increased copy number of the TERT and TERC telomerase subunit genes in cancer cells. Cancer Science, 99(6), 1092-1099. Retrieved November 17, 2014, from

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