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PLoS Genet. 2009 Feb;5(2):e1000375. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000375. Epub 2009 Feb 13.

The individual blood cell telomere attrition rate is telomere length dependent.

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Department of Medical Biosciences, Pathology, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden.


Age-associated telomere shortening is a well documented feature of peripheral blood cells in human population studies, but it is not known to what extent these data can be transferred to the individual level. Telomere length (TL) in two blood samples taken at approximately 10 years interval from 959 individuals was investigated using real-time PCR. TL was also measured in 13 families from a multigenerational cohort. As expected, we found an age-related decline in TL over time (r = -0.164, P<0.001, n = 959). However, approximately one-third of the individuals exhibited a stable or increased TL over a decade. The individual telomere attrition rate was inversely correlated with initial TL at a highly significant level (r = -0.752, P<0.001), indicating that the attrition rate was most pronounced in individuals with long telomeres at baseline. In accordance, the age-associated telomere attrition rate was more prominent in families with members displaying longer telomeres at a young age (r = -0.691, P<0.001). Abnormal blood TL has been reported at diagnosis of various malignancies, but in the present study there was no association between individual telomere attrition rate or prediagnostic TL and later tumor development. The collected data strongly suggest a TL maintenance mechanism acting in vivo, providing protection of short telomeres as previously demonstrated in vitro. Our findings might challenge the hypothesis that individual TL can predict possible life span or later tumor development.

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