If an anti-aging regimen that involves telomeres – part of the human chromosome – sounds too good to be true, it probably is, says Jens Schmidt, a postdoctoral fellow in the Cech Lab at CU Boulder’s BioFrontiers Institute.

“There are all these products out there that say ‘hypercharge your telomeres!’ But if you do that in cells that are predisposed to turn into cancer cells you might be in trouble,” says Schmidt, who was just named the first Coloradan to win the prestigious Damon Runyan-Dale Frey Breakthrough Award for cancer research.

Jens Schmidt, of the BioFrontiers Institute, is the first Coloradan to receive the Damon Runyan-Dale Frey Breakthrough Award for cancer research.

Telomeres are elongated caps at the ends of each of our 46 chromosomes which, like the tips of shoelaces, serve to protect our precious DNA from fraying. As telomeres shorten, cells wither and die, and we age. Consequently, telomere preservation – via everything from gene therapy to dietary supplements – has been broadly viewed as the modern-day fountain of youth.

But Schmidt sees telomeres in a darker light. When preserved via a naturally-occurring enzyme called telomerase, they can also immortalize some cells that are meant to stop dividing and die. Left to proliferate, those cells can lead to cancer.

“Telomere maintenance is one of the few key things cancer needs to survive,” says Schmidt.