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Alternate ending – living on without telomerase

No. 58 | 03/11/2011 | by Koh

Scientists of the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) have discovered an alternative mechanism for the extension of the telomere repeat sequence by DNA repair enzymes.

enlarged view In some cancer cells, APB complexes (yellow) induce the extension of the telomere repeats (red). | © dkfz.de

The ends of the chromosomes, the telomeres, are repetitive DNA sequences that shorten every time a cell divides during the process of duplicating its genome. Once the telomeres become very short the cell stops dividing. Thus, telomeres work like a cellular clock that keeps an eye on the number of cell divisions. And once the cell’s time is over it can no longer divide. Circumventing this control mechanism is crucial for tumor cells in order to proliferate without limits. In the majority of tumors this is accomplished by reactivating telomerase, an enzyme that normally extends the telomeres only in embryonic cells, and thus resets the cellular clock during development. However, a 10-15% fraction of tumors keeps on dividing without telomerase by making use of what is called the ALT-mechanism for “Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres”. The hallmark of ALT cancer cells is a special type of complexes of promyelocytic leukemia (PML) protein at the telomeres that are termed ALT-associated PML nuclear bodies or APBs.

ALT-tumors can be identified by the presence of APBs on fluorescence microscopy images since normal cells do not have these structures. However, the function of APBs has remained mysterious. In a recent study, Inn Chung and Karsten Rippe from the German Cancer Research Center together with Heinrich Leonhard from the LMU in Munich applied a novel approach to study APBs. They succeeded in artificially making APBs in living cells by tethering PML and other APB proteins to the telomeres. In this manner they could not only trace the assembly of APBs but were able to investigate what happens after APB formation. They could show that the de novo formed APBs induced the extension of the telomere repeat sequence by a DNA repair synthesis mechanism. This demonstrates for the first time that APBs have an important function for the alternative telomere lengthening mechanism, and suggests that disrupting APBs would stop proliferation of ALT-positive tumor cells once their telomeres become too short. This makes APBs a promising new target of cancer cells, in which the ALT mechanism is active.

Publication: Chung, I., Leonhardt, H. & Rippe, K. (2011). De novo assembly of a PML nuclear subcompartment occurs through multiple pathways and induces telomere elongation. J. Cell Sci., doi: 10.1242/jcs.084681.

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 2,500 employees is the largest biomedical research institute in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,000 scientists investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and endeavor to find new strategies to prevent people from getting cancer. They develop novel approaches to make tumor diagnosis more precise and treatment of cancer patients more successful. The staff of the Cancer Information Service (KID) offers information about the widespread disease of cancer for patients, their families, and the general public. Jointly with Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ has established the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg, where promising approaches from cancer research are translated into the clinic. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of six German Centers for Health Research, DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partnering sites. Combining excellent university hospitals with high-profile research at a Helmholtz Center is an important contribution to improving the chances of cancer patients. DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers, with ninety percent of its funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the remaining ten percent from the State of Baden-Württemberg.

last update: 03/11/2011 back to top