Prevalence of telomerase activity in human cancer

J Formos Med Assoc. 2011 May;110(5):275-89. doi: 10.1016/S0929-6646(11)60043-0.


Telomerase activity has been measured in a wide variety of cancerous and non-cancerous tissue types, and the vast majority of clinical studies have shown a direct correlation between it and the presence of cancerous cells. Telomerase plays a key role in cellular immortality and tumorigenesis. Telomerase is activated in 80-90% of human carcinomas, but not in normal somatic cells, therefore, its detection holds promise as a diagnostic marker for cancer. Measurable levels of telomerase have been detected in malignant cells from various samples: tissue from gestational trophoblastic neoplasms; squamous carcinoma cells from oral rinses; lung carcinoma cells from bronchial washings; colorectal carcinoma cells from colonic luminal washings; bladder carcinoma cells from urine or bladder washings; and breast carcinoma or thyroid cancer cells from fine needle aspirations. Such clinical tests for telomerase can be useful as non-invasive and cost-effective methods for early detection and monitoring of cancer. In addition, telomerase activity has been shown to correlate with poor clinical outcome in late-stage diseases such as non-small cell lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and soft tissue sarcomas. In such cases, testing for telomerase activity can be used to identify patients with a poor prognosis and to select those who might benefit from adjuvant treatment. Our review of the latest medical advances in this field reveals that telomerase holds great promise as a biomarker for early cancer detection and monitoring, and has considerable potential as the basis for developing new anticancer therapies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis*
  • Breast Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Genital Neoplasms, Female / enzymology
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / enzymology*
  • Telomerase / analysis*
  • Telomerase / physiology
  • Telomere


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • TERT protein, human
  • Telomerase