Telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein that maintains the ends of chromosomes (telomeres). In normal cells lacking telomerase activity, telomeres shorten with each cell division because of the inability to completely synthesize the lagging strand. Critically shortened telomeres elicit DNA damage responses and limit cellular division and lifespan, providing an important tumor suppressor function. Most human cancer cells express telomerase which contributes significantly to the tumor phenotype. In human breast cancer, telomerase expression is predictive of clinical outcomes such as lymph node metastasis and survival. In mouse models of mammary cancer, telomerase expression is also upregulated. Telomerase overexpression resulted in spontaneous mammary tumor development in aged female mice. Increased mammary cancer also was observed when telomerase deficient mice were crossed with p53 null mutant animals. However, the effects of telomerase and telomere length on oncogene driven mammary cancer have not been completely characterized. To address these issues we characterized neu proto-oncogene driven mammary tumor formation in G1 Terc-/- (telomerase deficient with long telomeres), G3 Terc-/- (telomerase deficient with short telomeres), and Terc+/+ mice. Telomerase deficiency reduced the number of mammary tumors and increased tumor latency regardless of telomere length. Decreased tumor formation correlated with increased apoptosis in Terc deficient tumors. Short telomeres dramatically increased lung metastasis which correlated with increased genomic instability, and specific alterations in DNA copy number and gene expression. We concluded that short telomeres promote metastasis in the absence of telomerase activity in neu oncogene driven mammary tumors.
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