Mutations in the promoter of the telomerase gene TERT contribute to tumorigenesis by a two-step mechanism

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Science  29 Sep 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6358, pp. 1416-1420
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao0535

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Two-step role for mutant TERT promoters

Telomeres preserve genomic stability by preventing chromosomal fusions. The recent discovery that human tumors harbor mutations in the promoter region of the telomerase gene (TERT) produced a flurry of research aimed at elucidating the role of these mutations in cancer development. Chiba et al. present data that reconcile many of the conflicting results reported to date (see the Perspective by Shay). In human melanoma samples and a fibroblast model, TERT promoter mutations acted in two steps. First, the mutations allowed cells to proliferate with short telomeres. This fueled genomic instability and up-regulation of telomerase expression, leading to uncontrolled cell proliferation.

Science, this issue p. 1416; see also p. 1358


TERT promoter mutations (TPMs) are the most common noncoding mutations in cancer. The timing and consequences of TPMs have not been fully established. Here, we show that TPMs acquired at the transition from benign nevus to malignant melanoma do not support telomere maintenance. In vitro experiments revealed that TPMs do not prevent telomere attrition, resulting in cells with critically short and unprotected telomeres. Immortalization by TPMs requires a gradual up-regulation of telomerase, coinciding with telomere fusions. These data suggest that TPMs contribute to tumorigenesis by promoting immortalization and genomic instability in two phases. In an initial phase, TPMs do not prevent bulk telomere shortening but extend cellular life span by healing the shortest telomeres. In the second phase, the critically short telomeres lead to genome instability and telomerase is further up-regulated to sustain cell proliferation.

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