Telomerase serves a crucial function in human cancer by elongating telomeres and supporting cancer cell immortalization. Telomerase is thought to be upregulated during human cancer progression, enabling aspiring cancer cells to overcome senescence barriers. Telomerase expression in normal tissues is highly enriched in stem cells and progenitor cells, and is efficiently silenced in more differentiated progeny. Despite clear evidence for restricted expression of telomerase, challenges in detecting telomerase at the single cell level have limited our ability to understand telomerase regulation in tissues and in cancers in depth. In addition to its role in telomere elongation, we have shown that TERT, the telomerase protein subunit, exerts potent effects on tissue stem cells through an auxiliary pathway. TERT modulates the output of the Wnt signaling pathway through an interaction with the chromatin remodeling protein Brg1, and a direct association with promoter chromatin at Wnt-regulated genes. TERT overexpression activates quiescent stem cells in vivo and regulates a Wnt-related gene expression program. We hypothesize that telomerase is almost universally associated with progenitor cells and with human cancers, not only to overcome senescence barriers, but also to support Wnt signaling and associated programs of self-renewal, proliferation and survival critical for progenitor cells and for developing cancers. o address these hypotheses, we have generated novel mouse knockin and knockout reagents that facilitate the dissection of endogenous telomerase at the single cell level and at the protein level, and that allow deletion of TERT in vivo in tissues and in cancers with spatiotemporal control. Remarkably, we find that acute deletion of TERT in vivo abrogates Wnt signaling and leads to immediate phenotypes not evident in germline telomerase knockout mice. We plan to pursue the following specific aims: (1) To define the identity and function of telomerase-positive cells in tissues (2) To understand the role of TERT in epithelial cancer through acute deletion and (3) To understand the function of TERT in controlling epigenetic tumor states.

Public Health Relevance

Cancer is inherently linked to unlimited and dysregulated proliferation of abnormal cells forming a tumor that can spread to other sites in the body, eventually killing its host. This behavior of cancer cells is inherently different from most cells within the body, but does share important commonalities with stem cells. Tumor cells and stem cells have a very large capacity to divide due in part to expression of the enzyme telomerase, which elongates telomeres that special caps that protect chromosome ends. Tumor cells and stem cells also share the ability to self- renew, that is, to divide in such a manner as to generat a daughter cell with all the capabilities of the original cell. Tumor cells and stem cells also employ many of the same growth control pathways that underlie these similar traits. In this proposal, we will study how telomerase is regulated in tissues and in tumors. We will pursue a novel hypothesis that telomerase contributes to tumorigenesis by modulating growth control pathways important in stem cells, in addition to its role in elongating telomeres.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Cancer Genetics Study Section (CG)
Program Officer
Pelroy, Richard
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Stanford University
Internal Medicine/Medicine
Schools of Medicine
United States
Zip Code
Pech, Matthew F; Garbuzov, Alina; Hasegawa, Kazuteru et al. (2015) High telomerase is a hallmark of undifferentiated spermatogonia and is required for maintenance of male germline stem cells. Genes Dev 29:2420-34
Freund, Adam; Zhong, Franklin L; Venteicher, Andrew S et al. (2014) Proteostatic control of telomerase function through TRiC-mediated folding of TCAB1. Cell 159:1389-403
Batista, Luis F Z; Artandi, Steven E (2013) Understanding telomere diseases through analysis of patient-derived iPS cells. Curr Opin Genet Dev 23:526-33
Zhong, Franklin L; Batista, Luis F Z; Freund, Adam et al. (2012) TPP1 OB-fold domain controls telomere maintenance by recruiting telomerase to chromosome ends. Cell 150:481-94
Shkreli, Marina; Sarin, Kavita Y; Pech, Matthew F et al. (2011) Reversible cell-cycle entry in adult kidney podocytes through regulated control of telomerase and Wnt signaling. Nat Med 18:111-9
Zhong, Franklin; Savage, Sharon A; Shkreli, Marina et al. (2011) Disruption of telomerase trafficking by TCAB1 mutation causes dyskeratosis congenita. Genes Dev 25:11-6
Batista, Luis F Z; Pech, Matthew F; Zhong, Franklin L et al. (2011) Telomere shortening and loss of self-renewal in dyskeratosis congenita induced pluripotent stem cells. Nature 474:399-402
Venteicher, Andrew S; Abreu, Eladio B; Meng, Zhaojing et al. (2009) A human telomerase holoenzyme protein required for Cajal body localization and telomere synthesis. Science 323:644-8
Park, Jae-Il; Venteicher, Andrew S; Hong, Ji Yeon et al. (2009) Telomerase modulates Wnt signalling by association with target gene chromatin. Nature 460:66-72
Venteicher, Andrew S; Meng, Zhaojing; Mason, Philip J et al. (2008) Identification of ATPases pontin and reptin as telomerase components essential for holoenzyme assembly. Cell 132:945-57

Showing the most recent 10 out of 13 publications