Telomeres are the ends of linear chromosomes comprised of repetitive nucleotide sequences in humans. Telomeres preserve chromosomal stability and genomic integrity. Telomere length shortens with every cell division in somatic cells, eventually resulting in replicative senescence once telomere length becomes critically short. Telomere shortening can be overcome by telomerase enzyme activity that is undetectable in somatic cells, while being active in germline cells, stem cells, and immune cells. Telomeres are bound by a shelterin complex that regulates telomere lengthening as well as protects them from being identified as DNA damage sites. Telomeres are transcribed by RNA polymerase II, and generate a long noncoding RNA called telomeric repeat-containing RNA (TERRA), which plays a key role in regulating subtelomeric gene expression. Replicative immortality and genome instability are hallmarks of cancer and to attain them cancer cells exploit telomere maintenance and telomere protection mechanisms. Thus, understanding the role of telomeres and their associated proteins in cancer initiation, progression and treatment is very important. The present review highlights the critical role of various telomeric components with recently established functions in cancer. Further, current strategies to target various telomeric components including human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT) as a therapeutic approach in human malignancies are discussed.
Keywords: cancer; gene expression; genomic stability; telomerase; telomeres; therapeutic strategies.