Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have been at the forefront of an emerging medical field that seeks to identify and help treat problems caused by stress. Now, these scientists hope to market their findings to physicians in the form of a test that can act as a personal report card on patients' health, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
"The science is there, and the time is right to bring it to the public," said Elizabeth Blackburn, one of the UCSF researchers who co-founded the business, Telome Health Inc. "We see a big market opportunity for this."
In 2004, the researchers showed that psychological stress harms a key component of human cells, called telomeres. Telomeres, which are pieces of DNA, are attached to and protect the chromosomes of cells. Telomeres allow chromosomes to divide properly when, say, the body needs more white blood cells to fight infection.
Telomeres fray naturally as a person ages but higher levels of psychological stress can degrade telomeres at a faster rate, studies by UCSF and other researchers indicate.
Shorter telomeres in human cells have been associated with slower wound healing, earlier mortality, cardiovascular disease and poor immune defenses, said Bruce McEwen, a professor at Rockefeller University in New York who studies the effects of stress on the brain and immune system. He is not involved in Telome Health.
Telome Health's tests, which cost about $200 per sample, are not available to the public yet. But it expects to obtain certification later this year that will allow physicians to request tests for individual patients, said Dan Hunt, Telome Health's interim chief executive.
Hunt says the test would allow people to gauge their overall health status and determine whether lifestyle changes are necessary. Testing a person's telomere length over time could help determine whether behaviors such as increased exercise or meditation, for instance, are slowing down the aging of telomeres or, in some cases, even increasing their length, researchers say.
Last summer, the Menlo Park-based company hired Hunt, a former pharmaceutical-company executive, to develop its commercial strategy.
Hunt said the team is working on a way to detect telomere length from saliva rather than blood samples, the current method. The company, founded last year, has received more than $650,000 in funding from friends, investors in early-stage start-ups and an undisclosed corporate investor.