Beginning at the ends: telomeres and human disease

F1000Res. 2018 May 1;7:F1000 Faculty Rev-524. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.14068.1. eCollection 2018.


Studies of rare and common illnesses have led to remarkable progress in the understanding of the role of telomeres (nucleoprotein complexes at chromosome ends essential for chromosomal integrity) in human disease. Telomere biology disorders encompass a growing spectrum of conditions caused by rare pathogenic germline variants in genes encoding essential aspects of telomere function. Dyskeratosis congenita, a disorder at the severe end of this spectrum, typically presents in childhood with the classic triad of abnormal skin pigmentation, nail dystrophy, and oral leukoplakia, accompanied by a very high risk of bone marrow failure, cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, and other medical problems. In contrast, the less severe end of the telomere biology disorder spectrum consists of middle-age or older adults with just one feature typically seen in dyskeratosis congenita, such as pulmonary fibrosis or bone marrow failure. In the common disease realm, large-scale molecular epidemiology studies have discovered novel associations between illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, and mental health, and both telomere length and common genetic variants in telomere biology genes. This review highlights recent findings of telomere biology in human disease from both the rare and common disease perspectives. Multi-disciplinary collaborations between clinicians, basic scientists, and epidemiologist are essential as we seek to incorporate new telomere biology discoveries to improve health outcomes.

Keywords: Coats plus; Hoyeraal Hreidsarsson syndrome; cancer; dyskeratosis congenita; epidemiology; telomere; telomere biology disorder.

Publication types

  • Review

Grant support

This work was supported by the intramural research program of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health.