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In the Quest of Living Healthier and Longer

Telomere, Ageing & Cancer: Islamic Perspective

The Prophet (PBUH) said, “The best of people are those who live longest and excel in their deeds.”(Tirmidhi).

It is clear that Islam praises those who live longer with the condition that they use their lifetime for piety and good deeds.)

The long awaited news is finally here. Drum roll. People can now have better health to live hundreds of years longer. Not only that, cancer too might be no longer unbeatable. By unlocking more and more secrets of how our DNA and its components work, scientists are becoming more enthusiastic than ever.

They now believe that we can slow down ageing or reverse it through manipulating the length of Telomere. The antidote for cancer may lie in activating telomerase, and we can eradicate the chronic, age-related diseases very soon.

Until recently, we thought the aging process as inevitable; there was no way to slow it down let alone reverse it. Aging just has to happen, and slowly people approach death. But recent scientific breakthrough has revealed many secrets.

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From the Islamic perspective, science and technology intended to improve human life, be it lifespan or quality of life, is something commendable and worthy.

In fact, efforts to provide humans with the best living standard and cure them from diseases are a form of worship, deserving immense reward from God the Almighty.

Such is part of humans’ responsibility as God’s vicegerents on earth. Islam is neither against longevity, nor does it recommend early death, as believed by some.

Telomere, a region of repetitive nucleotide sequences at the tips of chromosomes, it protects the DNA integrity. It also allows proper cellular division without any loss of genetic information. You can imagine the telomere as the plastic cap at the end of shoelaces. They are crucial to prevent the fine strands from unraveling and tangling with one another.

With each cell division, however, telomere progressively shortens until it reaches a minimal length at which the cell is no longer able to proliferate. At this stage, the cell is said to have reached its Hayflick Limit. It will then either die, senesce, or somehow (in an abnormal manner) escape the usual fate and keep replicating.

It has a big implication in determining whether the uncontrolled cellular proliferation can lead to malignancy. By understanding the function of telomere and how it limits the lifespan of a cell, the ageing process has become much clearer. In fact, the ‘telomere’ phenomenon is one of the main causes of aging, besides oxidative stress and other external factors.

Since cellular death or its failure to further divide means the beginning of deterioration of various bodily functions, it also indicates ageing. Numerous studies have shown a strong link between the length of telomeric DNA and longevity. Longer telomeres are there in those with longer lifespan, while shorter ones associate with early or premature death. Not only that, scientists now believe that long telomeres may be a factor contributing to better health (or are the cause of it).

Short telomeres on the other hand, predispose to age-related and chronic diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and cardiovascular problems. Having regular physical exercise, consuming whole meal foods, stress avoidance and getting social support is another factor that have a positive impact on the length of telomere.

In November 2012 a study in Molecular Ecology by a group of researchers from University of East Anglia, has concluded that we can predict the biological age and life expectancy through measuring an individual’s DNA.

They studied the length of telomeres in 320 Seychelles Warblers. They found that individuals vastly differed in terms of the speed of chromosomal shortening with age. Birds with shorter telomeres at any age have a higher risk of death. Lead researcher David S. Richardson said, “We investigated whether, at any given age, their telomere lengths could predict imminent death. We found that short and rapidly shortening telomeres were a good indication that the bird would die within a year. We also found that individuals with longer telomeres had longer life spans overall.”

In another study presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session in San Francisco in March 2013, a group of researchers were able to predict the survival rates among patients with heart disease based on their length of telomeres.


The longer they are, the greater the likelihood of surviving and living a longer life. John Carlquist, the director of the Intermountain Heart Institute Genetics Lab and his colleagues collected and tested more than 3,500 DNA samples from patients with heart attack and stroke. They came up with the same conclusion.

Shortened telomeres links with ageing diseases such as cardiovascular disease or cancer. That’s in addition to exposure to oxidative damage from stress, smoking, air pollution, or conditions that accelerate biological aging.

Can We Stop It?

Realizing the relation between telomere length and the speed of ageing, we drew a significant conclusion. If we can stop the shortening of this ‘shoelace cap’, or if we can lengthen it, ageing will significantly slow down or even reverse.

In simpler words, if the cell can escape its wear and tear fate, humans may live hundreds of years longer, or they may escape death along with many dangerous diseases altogether. Something unthinkable in the past, but not anymore.

In fact, we discovered an enzyme called telomerase. Its function is to maintain the length of telomere following repeated cell division by replenishing it and replacing its lost bits of DNA. Even though until now, telomerase is mainly found in embryonic stem cells and adult germ cells. Its ability to sustain the cell’s proliferative capacity has created the possibility of using this enzyme on other somatic cells. Therefore, it may endlessly rejuvenate the human body.

Injecting telomerase in high concentration into somatic cells, in theory, will consequently enable telomere to sustain its length and keep the cell reproducing itself without end. This is how the ageing process slows down and age-related diseases become preventable. The downside, however, is whether this endless cellular replication will get out of control and lead to cancerous growths.

The idea of manipulating telomerase has led to another prospect, that is, a remedy for cancer. Cancer or malignancy originates from multiple genetic mutations that occur at the cellular level and cause uncontrollable cellular multiply. A cell upon reaching its critical telomeric DNA length (Hayflick Limit) undergoes apoptosis or senescence. But, ‘accidents’ or ‘errors’ may occur in the form of mutations and this takes it to a different, unusual pathway.

In most cancer tissues, high concentration of telomerase is detected, which is crucial to enable the malignant cells to constantly replicate without losing their telomere function and length. So in theory, a substance or drug that targets telomerase, by either destroying or inactivating it, should be able to effectively kill cancer cells and prevent their growth.

Definitive conclusions are perhaps not ready yet, be it on the question of ageing, prevention of chronic diseases or cancer. This is because most of the hypotheses and findings come from experiments on animals like mice. The degree of similarity and difference between mice and humans is to be clearly understood and defined before comparable assumptions can be made. The positive and apparently promising results achieved in those experiments, however, are good signs that a big leap is soon expected in these areas.

What Do We Need from These Discoveries?

Now the bigger question: What do humans want exactly from these theories and discoveries? The manipulation of telomere and telomerase makes four things (theories) possible. One, man can live much longer. A famous scientist suggested that successful preservation of telomere length can render human alive up to one thousand years. Two, humans may be immortalized. Highly enthusiastic researchers and scholars have been considering this possibility for quite some time. Three, man won’t only enjoy longevity but will also be free from all the age-related, crippling diseases. Four, cancer will be history.

It is perhaps natural for humans to look for eternity and enjoy the best quality of life with their beloved ones to achieve all their goals. No one in their right mind will reject a long life free from chronic diseases and cancer.

To wish for immortality is nevertheless a completely different question. In search for self-indulgence, pleasure and eternal happiness, people at times become deceived and, as a result, go to extremes. As they believe that death is the ultimate end and besides this world there exists no other place of enjoyment, death becomes their worst enemy. It is also psychologically true that Allah created mankind with a natural ‘fear of the unknown’. Death, a phenomenon shrouded with mystery is therefore inherently feared by man.

Consequently, people work day and night to find ways to avoid it. Such desperation to live forever is a subtle rejection of the concept of afterlife. Cryonics, a method of keeping humans and animals (who can no longer be saved by conventional medicine) in extreme low temperature with the hope of bringing them back to life one day, is an example of how frantic humans are concerning the thought of ultimate perish.

Islam’s stance on this matter is clear. God says in the Holy Qur’an: “Every soul will taste death. We test you with evil and good as trial, and to Us you will be returned.”(Surat Al-Anbya’: 21:35). While Islamic teachings regard finding cures for diseases and prolonging man’s lifespan as praiseworthy, they constantly remind man of their final destination, which is the Day of Judgment and the afterlife.

Death is Our Ultimate Fate

TelomereThe human body will experience death and decay, but the soul on the other hand is eternal and will return to its Creator upon demise. Immortality as pertains to bodily and physical existence in this world has, therefore, no place in Islam. Human beings conversely are ordered to make full use of their short life and time endowed, before they are held accountable by God on the Day of Judgment.

Even if humans succeed,  with the help of their God-created sophisticated brains in achieving biological immortality which Allah allows them to accomplish, this still doesn’t guarantee an eternal life. Scientists have admitted that even if all biological factors contributing to death can be eliminated, there is one left; physical trauma, which is still beyond humans’ control.

If we analyze closely the Holy Quran, we will see that none of its verses gives any impression that it is ultimately impossible for humans to remove the possible biological causes of death within their limits. Physical trauma, however, falls under the category of ‘random’ or ‘accidents’ and hence it is in the hands of God.

The horror of ‘The Day of Resurrection’ as depicted in many Qur’anic chapters to indicate the end of the human race, seems to associate man’s ultimate demise with physical injury when the earth falls apart.

If again, by all means humans succeed in getting Physical Intangibility into reality which will allow humans to avoid accidents and physical trauma as they are able to pass their bodies through solids, this is still unlikely to help humans at all to escape from dying before the Day of Judgment as Allah promised.

Why? One might ask. The prerequisites of life are two: body and self consciousness. The body, in spite of all the technological advances cannot experience life without a sense of awareness, believed to be the soul. Humans are blessed with the capability of physically manipulating the body to avoid death, but they have no or very limited control over the soul.

Various verses in the Holy Quran assert that the soul belongs to Allah and that despite all, it is destined to return to its Creator. On top of that, the Quran confirmed that man know very little about the nature of the soul, unlike the physical body. ‘And they ask you concerning the soul. Say: “The soul is one of the things of which the knowledge is only with my Lord. And of knowledge, you (mankind) have been given only a little.’ (Surat Al-Isra’: 17:85).

Having clarified the different issues arising from these new scientific discoveries, one final dilemma is left. Out of scientists’ excitement and zeal to prolong human life on earth while keeping them disease-free, Muslims particularly need to be careful; they have to remain balanced in their judgment and not to lose sight of life’s original purpose.

Longevity without any forms of ailments sounds too good to be true, almost heavenly. With today’s and future’s abundance of wealth and comfort in addition, people in general (including Muslims), may begin to feel that they have earned paradise on earth. When this happens, they may utter the question I dread most: ‘Why should I long for heaven in the hereafter when I have already found one?’

This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.