A recently published medical paper suggests the answer may be YES. A team of scientists from Rutgers University reviewed the disease progression of COVID-19 and created an interesting hypothesis – that telomeres, particularly short telomere length, may be a potential biomarker that identifies patients most likely to have a bad prognosis from COVID-19. The theory was published this summer in the FASEB Journal (stands for Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology). The authors suggest that short telomeres “might serve to identify patients more likely to die from the SARS-CoV-2 infection, regardless of age.”
Telomeres are bits of DNA that protect the ends of our chromosomes. The most commonly used analogy is that telomeres act like the plastic tip on shoelaces that protect the end from unraveling. As a cell divides, the telomere gets a wee bit shorter. After so many divisions, the telomere has worn down to the point it no longer protects the cell and the cell will die. Telomeres act like a cellular clock. The shorter they get, the “older” the cell. Eventually, the cell dies. When enough cells die, tissue dysfunction occurs and eventually the entire organism (that means us) will die, or at least get very very old.
Skin is a good example. When we are young, the skin cells regenerate easily. But as we age, the telomeres in those skin cells become critically short, until the skin cell can no longer replicate. When we can’t regenerate tissue (in this case, skin), it becomes aged, which is clearly manifested in skin as we get older. So we want our cells to be able to replicate so they can repair damaged tissues. And although telomere length is somewhat hereditary, environmental factors play a HUGE role in our telomere attrition rate. (think nutrients, exercise, stress reduction, etc).
Here’s where it matters when it comes to COVID-19. When someone is infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, our immune cells – particularly white blood cells called lymphocytes – should be able to replicate robustly in order to launch an effective and not-too-destructive attack on the virus. Each time they are replicating, a bit of their telomeres get shorter. In fact, a common thread in patients who die from SARS-CoV-2 is lymphopenia – which is a low number of white blood cells.
Researchers believe that the “propensity of T-cells [lymphocytes] to undergo senescence [biological aging] might play a critical role in severe lymphopenia associated with COVID-19 and its often fatal outcome.”
What does this mean? It means that shorter telomeres might impair a person’s ability to make T-cells and thus compromise their ability to fight COVID-19. We know younger people have an enormous restorative potential for their cells because they naturally have longer telomeres than an elderly population. We also know that younger people are less likely to have poor prognosis and telomeres may have something to do with it.
The research is certainly not suggesting that measuring telomeres on infected patients is the goal. It is simply suggesting a potential biomarker that may serve to indicate how well a person may fare if they get COVID-19, notwithstanding the fact that several other factors may be at play (i.e. underlying conditions, virus levels, etc). Interestingly, most, if not all, underlying conditions that make someone more at risk for COVID-19 such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity, are also linked to shorter telomeres.
You can measure telomeres. SpectraCell was the first lab in the United States to offer telomere testing to the public in 2010*. Join SpectraCell for an entire webinar on Telomeres that covers testing, technology and its relation to COVID-19.
*Important Note – SpectraCell uses whole blood collected via venipuncture for its telomere test. This is important because not all collection methods (such as saliva or dried blood spot) give comparable results. The thousands of studies done on telomeres in medical research are done on telomeres from whole blood via venipuncture, which is the collection method that SpectraCell uses.
Find out what your telomere length is and what your DNA reveals about how well you are aging!
Aviv A. Telomeres and COVID-19. FASEB J 2020;00:1-6