Official Press Release:
An international team of scientists including researchers from the VU University Netherlands Twin Register, Leiden University Medical Center, Erasmus University Medical Centre and Groningen University Medical Centre has found new evidence that links faster ‘biological’ ageing to the risk of developing several age-related diseases - including heart disease, multiple sclerosis and various cancers.
The study, led by the University of Leicester UK involved scientists in 14 centres across 8 countries, working as part of the European ENGAGE Consortium (list of research teams is give below) and The Netherlands Consortium for Healthy Ageing. The research is published online today (27th March) in the journal Nature Genetics.
The project studied a feature of chromosomes called telomeres. Telomeres sit on the end of our chromosomes – the strands of DNA stored in the nucleus of cells. The telomeres shorten each time a cell divides to make new cells, until they reach a critical short length and the cells enter an inactive state and then die. Therefore telomeres shorten as an individual gets older. But, individuals are born with different telomere lengths and the rate at which they subsequently shorten can also vary. The speed with which telomeres wear down is a measure of ‘biological ageing’.
Professor Slagboom, who led the work from the Leiden University Medical Center said: “Although heart disease and cancer become quite common as one gets older, some may never develop such diseases while others are at risk already at an early age. It has been suspected that the occurrence of these diseases may in part be related to some people “biologically” ageing faster than others.”
Prof Boomsma from the Netherlands Twin Register said “this work builds on the observations from twin and family studies, published earlier this year in the EJHG, that telomere length is a highly heritable trait. We now identify the genes that are responsile for this high heritability.
The research team measured telomere lengths in over 48,000 individuals and looked at their DNA and identified seven genetic variants that were associated with telomere length. They then asked the question whether these genetic variants also affected risk of various diseases. As DNA cannot be changed by lifestyle or environmental factors, an association of these genetic variants which affect telomere length with a disease also would suggest a causal link between telomere length and that disease.
The scientists found that the variants were indeed linked to risk of several types of cancers including colorectal cancer as well as diseases like multiple sclerosis and celiac disease. Most interestingly, the authors found that in aggregate the seven variants also associated with risk of coronary artery disease which can lead to heart attacks.
Professor Nilesh Samani, British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiology at the University of Leicester, who led the overall project added: “These are really exciting findings. We had previous evidence that shorter telomere lengths are associated with increased risk of coronary artery disease but were not sure whether this association was causal or not. This research strongly suggests that biological ageing plays an important role in causing coronary artery disease, the commonest cause of death in the world. This provides a novel way of looking at the disease and at least partly explains why some patients develop it early and others don’t develop it at all even if they carry other risk factors.”
Dr Veryan Codd, Senior Research Associate at the University of Leicester who co-ordinated the study and carried out the majority of the telomere length measurements said: “The findings open of the possibility that manipulating telomere length could have health benefits. While there is a long way to go before any clinical application, there are data in experimental models where lengthening telomere length has been shown to retard and in some situations reverse age-related changes in several organs.”