Don’t Be Duped by the Telomere Scare

We all need to question the latest headlines about human cloning.

Dr. Paul Shields and Dr. Ian Wilmut, in a letter to Nature, reported that Dolly has slightly stunted telomeres.  Telomeres are DNA strands at each end of a cell’s DNA that become shorter with each cell division.  There has been speculation that telomeres are a sort of clock that tells cells it’s time to stop dividing and die, but reality has not proven to be so simple.  The researchers reported that Dolly’s telomeres were 20 percent shorter than those of sheep who are not clones.

First, all the reasons the “telomere finding” is not so bad: 

  • Dolly appears to be youthful and vigorous.  She has had several offspring including Bonnie–who is known to have normal telomeres.
  • To learn about telomeres is reason to proceed with cloning research, not abandon it.
  • The Hawaii mouse experiment cloned successive generations of mice, partially to test the premature aging theory, and there were no signs of premature aging until the fifth generation of clones.
  • The telomerase study is of only a few sheep including Dolly.  Some scientists have speculated that the reported telomere shortening may be laboratory error, and it’s also been suggested that a 20 percent difference may be within the normal variation for sheep.
  • Jose Cibelli, a cloning expert at Advanced Cell Technology, has done studies that suggest that cloning makes cells younger, not older.
  • Dolly was cloned from a 6-year-old adult.  Sheep only live to be from 7 to 15 years on average, depending upon your source of information and the breed of sheep.  Since 90 percent of cell divisions occur in the womb, how could Dolly have been born?  The telomere question is not as straight forward as some headlines make it sound.
  • Both eggs and sperm contain telomerase, and enzyme that causes the telomeres to lengthen.  So when the DNA from Dolly’s parent was placed inside the egg, perhaps her telomeres were readjusted to the needed length.
  • The simplistic telomere hypothesis does not hold up because animals have telomeres of all different lengths.  Those with long telomeres do not necessarily live longer than those with short telomeres.
  • Mice without telomerase have lived normal lifespans.
  • Telomeres do not always shorten with age.
  • The Japanese team cloning mice has used cells from many different parts of the body (including the tail in their recent cloning of a male mouse).  Apparently, DNA from about any cell will work.  If so, some cells (including brain cells) are always in the G0 state, which would seem to make the telomere “problem” a non-issue–if as it speculated, their DNA has full length telomeres since brain cells don’t divide.
  • In addition, one of the cloned sheep by the “PPL Therapeutics, Roslin people” did not have shorter telomeres.  This sheep, 6LL7 was cloned with fetal tissue DNA, which was minimally cultured.

The press reports were astonishingly one-sided.  Virtually all the headlines for the stories were negative, even when the articles were neutral.  The Washington Post and New York Times  stories (“Dolly: ‘A Sheep in Lamb’s Clothing'” by Rick Weiss 5/27/99 and “Sheep Clone’s Cells Aging Faster Than She Is” by Gina Kolata 5/27/99) together gave nine different reasons why the alleged telomere problem either isn’t correct or is not scientifically significant, and there is a three page section of Gina Kolata’s book, Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Beyondthat gives even more reasons.  Other newspapers were fast to emphasize the negative.  One newspaper took the front page story from the Washington Post story and shortened it by cutting out all the comments by pro-cloning people questioning the results.

But if you dig even farther back behind the recent news stories, you’ll discover a very interesting thing that none (or apparently none) of the newspapers bothered to report at all.  Geron Corporation owns the Roslin Institute’s cloning subsidiary having acquired it in a stock swap.  After outlining the alleged problem with Dolly’s telomeres, the Geron press release states:

“Geron and its collaborators have cloned telomerase, the cellular immortalizing enzyme which, when reactivated in normal cells, extends their healthy replicative lifespan by preventing telomere erosion….  Geron and the Roslin Institute will collaborate to combine telomerase activation with nuclear transfer to enable the efficient production of cloned transgenic animals with normal, full-length telomeres.  Geron will also pursue the combination of these technologies with pluripotent stem cell technology to produce human cells and tissues for medical transplantation…. Telomerase activation should provide the transplanted cells and tissues with extended lifespan and hence therapeutic benefit.”

In other words, the press release that announced the telomere “problem” also announced that Geron had the solution–patented.  Why didn’t that make it into the papers?

The encyclopedia says the AVERAGE lifespan of domesticated sheep is 7 years and other sources say 15 years.  Time will tell how Dolly does with her telomeres.  She was cloned from a 6 year-old.  So far there have been no indications that Dolly is physically older than 3–her age from birth.

The telomere finding is all the more reason that cloning and research should NOT be abandoned–so that we can learn how to prevent aging.

The press is out of control

John Stauber and Sheldon Ramptons’ book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, helps make us aware of how much of our thought conditioning through the various media sources is sheer 
propaganda, in order to manipulate public opinion.  It’s worth speculating that some of the telomere press reports are propaganda to turn people off of the idea of cloning as being too risky, or to generate laws against it.

Some articles are more headline than anything else — because so many people just read the headlines and not the finer details within, and might not have the back-up knowlege to understand those details, if they do read the article.  Headlines can easily be used for propaganda, since many people often only read headlines and not the articles themselves.  Again, we need more facts, but let’s nevertheless be aware of the possibilities of propaganda and thought conditioning by those who are against these things in the first place.

There seems to be unrelentingly negative bias in the press stories.  If altering telomere length definitely controls lifespan, the articles could have as easily been headlined: “KEY TO INCREASED HUMAN LIFESPAN: CLONES AND LONGER TELOMERES”?

Stephanie H. (,  Michael Darcy (, and two other persons contributed to this Web page.  Some of the factual data comes from Gina Kolata’s book, Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Beyond.  The orginal article was also reviewed – “Analysis of telomere lengths in cloned sheep,” Nature May 27, 1999:316-317.

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