Human cancer cells, unlike their normal counterparts, have shed the molecular restraints to limited cell growth and are immortal. Exactly how cancer cells manage this at the molecular level is beginning to be understood. Human cells must overcome two barriers to cellular proliferation. The first barrier, referred to as senescence, minimally involves the p53 and Rb tumor-suppressor pathways. Inactivation of these pathways results in some extension of lifespan. However, inactivation of these pathways is insufficient for immortalization. As normal cells undergo repeated rounds of DNA replication, their telomeres shorten due to the inability of traditional DNA polymerases to completely replicate the end of the chromosomal DNA. This shortening continues until the cells reach a second proliferative block referred to as crisis, which is characterized by chromosomal instability, end-to-end fusions, and cell death. Stabilization of the telomeric DNA through either telomerase activation or the activation of the alternative mechanism of telomere maintenance (ALT) is essential if the cells are to survive and proliferate indefinitely. Conversely, loss of telomere stabilization by an already-immortalized cell results in loss of immortality and cell death. Together this indicates that telomere maintenance is a critical component of immortality. In this review we attempt to describe our current understanding of the role of telomere maintenance in senescence, crisis, and tumorigenesis.
Copyright 2000 Academic Press.