“It is already possible to delay aging-related diseases and increase longevity”


To eliminate any disease, the first thing to find out is its origin. This is what María Blasco, scientific director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), says. She, together with her team, researches the causes behind the body’s aging, key to being able to cure the diseases that affect us most today, like cancer, cardiovascular risk and degenerative diseases. We spoke with her a few days after she delivered a keynote lecture at Fundación MAPFRE, to delve into aging as the origin of disease and the relationship between economics and longevity.

More than 30 years have passed since María Blasco (Alicante, 1963) trained as a Molecular Biologist in the laboratory of Margarita Salas, her scientific mother, her mentor, as she describes her. Since June 2011, she has been the director of the CNIO, an institution she joined after her experience as a scientist at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), and where today nearly 500 people work on cancer treatment research. Telomerase, a protein that is present in cells and that is essential for delaying diseases and studying aging and longevity, has a great deal to do with her progress. Her latest discovery is a therapy for treating pulmonary fibrosis, based specifically on the activation of telomerase. This development will soon be applied in clinical trials, in other words, on patients for whom there is currently no drug that can cure their disease.

Aging is said to be the reason diseases kill us: what exactly is aging then, and at what point does it occur?
Aging is caused by the accumulation of damage in our cells, damage that is associated with the multiplication of cells to regenerate tissues. One of the most harmful and persistent types of damage associated with cell multiplication is the shortening of telomeres, the protective structures of our chromosomes, similar to the piece of plastic at the end of a shoelace. These telomeres deform as our body undergoes complete regeneration, something which occurs every 10 years. The fact is that each time these regenerations occur, the telomeres are depleted, and as a result aging and diseases occur. The loss of telomeres can start from the very beginning of life, for example, during embryonic development, as well as during the first years of life, since during this period a great deal of cell multiplication is necessary to create the new individual and get it to its final size.

Can it be said then that aging is inevitable? Do current advances allow us to extend our youth in any way?
Not all species age at the same rate, and there are even some that do not seem to do so at all. This indicates that there is no biological or physical limit to life, but rather that different species have developed different longevities, probably adjusted to their ability to survive in nature. In recent years, we have discovered molecular mechanisms that determine how long a species lives. As I said before, one of these is the speed of telomere shortening and in this sense, in my group, we have shown that species that live for less time are those that have more accelerated telomere shortening. Within the same species, if the telomeres shorten faster than normal, for example, due to the absence of telomerase – an enzyme that is capable of lengthening telomeres – this causes the individual to age faster. But, in contrast, if telomeres stay long for longer, we can slow down aging. We are already doing this in mice, so that they can stay young for longer. In this way we delay the pathologies of aging and increase longevity.

You are a pioneer in the study of telomeres, which are fundamental for understanding the origin of cancer and other diseases associated with aging. What do you think the most important contribution of this research has been? How is this type of research progressing?
We have shown that, if we destroy the telomeres of cancer cells, it is enough to stop tumor growth. This is because, unlike normal, healthy cells, which are mortal and shorten their telomeres, tumor cells are immortal because their telomeres are aberrantly long. On the other hand, we have seen that, if we keep telomeres longer, mice live longer and have fewer diseases, including cancer.

“Women are still largely responsible for caregiving, which makes the work-life balance more difficult and means there are fewer females in management positions”

We are moving towards an increasingly longer life expectancy. Do you think that, in addition to living longer, this will involve a better quality of life?
What we see in the research we are doing is that when we get mice to live longer, it is because they suffer less disease and have a better quality of life. We get old mice to look like young mice. Whenever you increase longevity and slow down aging, you so also increase quality of life.

You say that cancer is the result of damage to our cells that occurs simply because we are alive, and this increases as we get older. You also warn that there are certain lifestyle habits that may favor greater or fewer mutations. Can you give us an example?  
Yes, I mean lifestyle habits that involve greater exposure of our cells to toxic agents, such as tobacco smoke, for example, will result in a greater accumulation of mutations in our DNA, greater damage and, therefore, faster molecular aging and an increased risk of disease.

The evolution of longevity will help people between 55 and 75 years of age to continue to contribute to society as a whole. What other elements do you think are necessary for this age group to continue to have opportunities?
These are matters for other specialists, but I certainly believe that the increase in life expectancy will lead to adjustments in the labor force, in educational schedules, and in people’s decisions when it comes to starting a family.

At what age would you like to retire?
Personally, I think that, whether I retire sooner or later, I would like to be able to continue doing my work. I think it is difficult for me to say that, one day, I am going to stop thinking about science and retire.

How is it that 70% of the people working at the CNIO are women? What do you think remains to be done to achieve gender equality in the field of science?
In general, in the world of biomedical research there are more women than men at different educational and career levels. Inequality appears when we talk about management positions, whether in research groups or laboratories. There are fewer women than men in these positions, and I think one of the reasons is that we are still largely responsible for caregiving, which makes it more difficult to reconcile work and family life.


“In the next few decades we will begin to cure previously incurable diseases”

“We are sending ships into space and robots to Mars, but we do not know how to cure most degenerative diseases.” With this and other reflections Maria Blasco began her keynote talk as part of the 2021 Academic Seminar on economics and longevity, organized by the Fundación MAPFRE Ageingnomics Research Center. The center, set up in 2020, aims to investigate and disseminate knowledge on the economics of aging, as well as promote the necessary debates that will enable society to adapt positively to the coming reality and build a new productive model that takes advantage of the opportunities of living longer.

Durante su conferencia, la directora científica del Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas (CNIO) During her lecture, the scientific director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), referred to cancer as “a disease that starts to become prevalent between the ages of 40 and 50, ages at which the risk increases greatly” and all this due to the aging of our cells. “If we find out what this aging process consists of, we will be able to determine which types of people are at risk of developing these diseases, before they actually develop them, as well as being able to prevent them —by delaying this aging process of our cells— and slowing down their progression, because they are all degenerative diseases”.

he 56-year-old biologist from Alicante linked this reality to “an important socioeconomic problem” that has to do with the fact that, as the number of people over the age of 65 increases, so does the incidence of suffering from pathologies such as cancer, cardiovascular and degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, for example. She also referred to the “gargantuan market” that could emerge if there really are medicines or drugs that are capable of preventing or curing these diseases once they appear, and she mentioned that over the last 10 years they have developed a gene therapy that activates telomerase, which is similar to a vaccine that is introduced into the body.

“We are now at a point where we are going to see how all this knowledge is applied, something that will undoubtedly be exciting in the coming decades because we will be able to start curing diseases that have so far been incurable”.