Long telomeres and cancer risk among 95 568 individuals from the general population

Int J Epidemiol. 2016 Oct;45(5):1634-1643. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyw179. Epub 2016 Aug 6.


Background: Results regarding telomere length and cancer risk are conflicting. We tested the hypothesis that long telomeres are associated with increased risk of any cancer and specific cancer types in genetic and observational analyses.

Methods: Individuals (N = 95 568) from the Copenhagen City Heart Study and the Copenhagen General Population Study had the telomere length-associated genotypes rs7726159 (TERT), rs1317082 (TERC), and rs2487999 (OBFC1) determined, and 65 176 had telomere length measured. A total of 10 895 individuals had had a cancer diagnosis. Endpoints were any cancer and 25 specific cancer types. We conducted Cox regression analyses and logistic regression analyses. The three genotypes were combined as an allele sum.

Results: Telomere length increased 67 base-pairs [95% confidence interval (CI) 61-74] per allele. In logistic regression models, the per-allele odds ratio (OR) for cancer was 1.05 (95% CI 1.03-1.07) for the allele sum, 1.05 (1.02-1.09) for rs7726159, 1.05 (1.02-1.08) for rs1317082 and 1.07 (1.02-1.12) for rs2487999. In contrast, the hazard ratio for any cancer was 1.01 (1.00-1.01) per 200-base-pair increase in telomere length in multivariable adjusted observational analysis. In genetic analyses according to specific cancer types, the per-allele odds ratio was 1.19 (1.12-1.27) for melanoma and 1.14 (1.06-1.22) for lung cancer.

Conclusions: Genetic determinants of long telomeres are associated with increased cancer risk, particularly melanoma and lung cancer. This genetic predisposition to enhanced telomere maintenance may represent a survival advantage for pre-cancerous cells, allowing for multiple cell divisions leading to cancer development.

Keywords: Cancer risk; genetic; telomere length.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Denmark
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Genetic Testing
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Lung Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Male
  • Melanoma / genetics*
  • Middle Aged
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Odds Ratio
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Risk Factors
  • Telomere / genetics*
  • Telomere Homeostasis*