Telomeres are the natural ends of linear chromosomes and crucial for genome stability, cellular viability and chromosome integrity. Telomeres shorten during each cell division, representing a cellular clock and limiting the replicative lifespan. To overcome this limit, cancer cells have to activate telomere maintenance mechanisms, which counteract telomere shortening and endow the cells with immortality. Ninety percent of cancers do so by activating telomerase, a reverse transcriptase complex that adds telomeric repeats to chromosome ends. The remaining 10% of cancers take advantage of a recombination-based mechanism for telomere length maintenance, called ALT (Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres). While telomerase activation is the more frequently used mechanism and widely investigated, it is becoming clear that ALT pathways can be activated upon telomerase inhibition, emphasizing that both telomere maintenance mechanisms have to be understood before telomere elongation can be successfully targeted as cancer therapy. ALT-dependent telomere lengthening is based on recombination between long and short telomeres, but the mechanisms are not currently understood. ALT has long been considered the result of defects in cellular recombination pathways, but despite intense efforts no deficiencies in recombination regulators have been identified in ALT-cells. Recent data suggest the hypothesis that ALT relies on aberrant recombination pathways needs to be reexamined and is likely incorrect. We discovered that ALT is likely a consequence of poor histone placement at repetitive regions, such as telomeres. We can induce ALT dependent telomeric recombination by suppression of isoforms of the histone chaperone Asf1. Upon Asf1 down regulation all characteristics of ALT emerge in primary and transformed cells, which include telomere sister chromatid exchange, telomere length heterogeneity, the formation of single stranded telomeric C-circles and the colocalization of PML, RPA and TTAGGG repeats in ALT associated PML bodies. The three intellectually connected but independent aims of this proposal are designed to investigate our novel concept for the ALT mechanism, which suggests that improper nucleosome placement at telomeres leads to single stranded loops at telomeres, which then readily recombine with each other.
In AIM1 we will investigate telomere structure in cells with suppressed Asf1, as well as nucleosome placement and DNA damage signaling at telomeres and throughout the nucleus in Asf1 suppressed cells. We will also address whether Asf1 dependent ALT activation is capable of long-term telomere maintenance.
AIM2 is designed to investigate why Asf1 suppression has telomere-specific effects and whether it leads to changes in telomeric chromatin in primary and transformed cells, therefore defining an ALT specific epigenetic signature.
In AIM3 we will investigate the Asf1 status of ALT tumor cells, whether ALT can be suppressed by Asf1 expression, and whether ALT is an epigenetic state that can be induced by constitutive Asf1 suppression.

Public Health Relevance

All cancer cells, in order to gain immortality, need to activate mechanisms to elongate and maintain their telomeres, which are the natural ends of linear chromosomes. The cells employ either telomerase or the recombination based ALT pathway, but emerging data suggest that ALT can be activated upon telomerase inhibition, emphasizing the need to understand the molecular basis of this pathway. This proposal is designed to explore the underlying mechanisms of the novel hypothesis that ALT is the consequence of aberrant DNA packaging of telomeric DNA.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
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Witkin, Keren L
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Salk Institute for Biological Studies
La Jolla
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