Scientists at The Wistar Institute have unveiled part of the protein complex that protects telomeres — the ends of our chromosomes. The study, published online in Nature Communications, explains how a group of genetic mutations associated with this protein complex contributes to various cancers.

Telomeres are the protective structures at the end of chromosomes and are essential for the faithful replication and protection of our genome. Defects in telomere function can lead to genomic instability in cancer, while the gradual shortening of telomeres is associated with the aging of human cells. A key component of the telomere protecting mechanism is a multi-protein complex called shelterin. Shelterin protects chromosome ends from triggering DNA damage response mechanisms; it also regulates telomere maintenance and replication by the enzyme telomerase.

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Dr. Stegall’s Comments: Protecting the integrity of our telomeres is essential for preventing aging and the development of chronic diseases such as cancer. We continue to learn more about what causes damage to telomeres, and thus our chromosomes. According to a 2012 study, the strategies for maintaining telomere length are the same ones we associate with being healthy: maintaining a healthy body weight; exercising regularly; eating a diet comprised of healthy vegetables, proteins, and fats; minimizing exposure to pollutants; and having regular stress-reduction practices. It is no surprise that cancer rates continue to climb as our society becomes more overweight, more stressed, less active, and eats less healthy foods.