Telomeres are repetitive sequence structures at the ends of linear chromosomes that consist of double-stranded DNA repeats followed by a short single-stranded DNA protrusion. Telomeres need to be replicated in each cell cycle and protected from DNA-processing enzymes, tasks that cells execute using specialized protein complexes such as telomerase (that includes TERT), which aids in telomere maintenance and replication, and the shelterin complex, which protects chromosome ends. These complexes are also able to interact with a variety of other proteins, referred to as the telomere interactome, to fulfill their biological functions and control signaling cascades originating from telomeres. Given their essential role in genomic maintenance and cell-cycle control, germline mutations in telomere-regulating proteins and their interacting partners have been found to underlie a variety of diseases and cancer-predisposition syndromes. These syndromes can be characterized by progressively shortening telomeres, in which carriers can present with organ failure due to stem cell senescence among other characteristics, or can also present with long or unprotected telomeres, providing an alternative route for cancer formation. This review summarizes the critical roles that telomere-regulating proteins play in cell-cycle control and cell fate and explores the current knowledge on different cancer-predisposing conditions that have been linked to germline defects in these proteins and their interacting partners.
©2014 American Association for Cancer Research.