Medullary thyroid carcinomas (MTCs) exhibit telomerase activation in strong association with shorter patient survival. To understand the background of telomerase activation we quantified TERT copy numbers and TERT promoter methylation in 42 MTCs and normal thyroid references. Gain of TERT was demonstrated by quantitative PCR in 5/39 sporadic MTC. Increased methylation index (MetI) for CpG methylation at the TERT promoter was found in sporadic MTCs (P < 0.0001) and in MEN 2 associated MTCs (P = 0.011) vs. normal thyroid tissues. MetI correlated positively with TERT gene expression (r = 0.432, P = 0.006) and negatively with telomere length (r = -0.343, P = 0.032). MTC cases with MetI above the median of 52% had shorter survival as compared to cases with lower MetI (P = 0.005 for overall survival and P = 0.007 for disease-related survival).Protein expression profiles obtained by mass spectrometry were then studied in relation to telomerase activation in MTCs. Comparing protein levels between tumors defined by telomerase activity status, 240 proteins were associated with telomerase activity. Among telomerase activation positive cases a set of proteins was found to discriminate between MTCs with high and low TERT gene expression with enrichment for proteins involved in telomerase regulation. XRCC5 mRNA expression was found increased in MTCs vs. normal thyroid (P = 0.007). In conclusion the findings suggest a role for TERT copy number gain, TERT promoter methylation and XRCC5 expression in telomerase activation and telomere maintenance of MTC.
Keywords: medullary thyroid carcinoma; methylation; proteomics; telomerase.