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Telomere Madness

Daily Scan recently wrote about Telome Health, a company launched by Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, and its new telomere test that purports to measure the length of people's telomeres to give them insight on their general health. Now, reports The New York Times' Andrew Pollack, several companies are getting into the telomere-health act by offering various tests that measure these bits of DNA. SpectraCell Laboratories in Houston offers a test for $290. The results, says the company's vice president for sales and marketing, are meant to be seen as a "wake-up call for the patient and the clinician." A company in Spain named Life Length is offering a test for $712 that claims to tell people their "biological age," which may not be the same as their chronological age, Pollack says. These tests, natutrally, have their critics. While there is evidence to suggest that the 1 percent of people with very short telomeres are at an increased risk for certain diseases, outside of that 1 percent, there isn't really any evidence to inform researchers about the consequences of having shorter telomeres than others, says Johns Hopkins University's Carol Greider, who shared the Nobel with Blackburn. "A given telomere length can be from a 20-year-old or a 70-year-old," she tells Pollack. "You could send me a DNA sample and I couldn't tell you how old that person is." Other critics says the ethical implications of such tests haven't been clearly studied, such as whether a person could be denied health insurance coverage based on the length of their telomeres. In addition, while some of the companies offering these tests require a doctor to be present, some allow the individuals to buy the test by themselves, Pollack says. "It is also unclear what to do about short telomeres. At the moment, there is no drug that can lengthen telomeres, though researchers are working on drugs and stem cell therapies," he adds.

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