Allele-specific proximal promoter hypomethylation of the telomerase reverse transcriptase gene (TERT) associates with TERT expression in multiple cancers

Mol Oncol. 2020 Oct;14(10):2358-2374. doi: 10.1002/1878-0261.12786. Epub 2020 Sep 11.


Telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) is pathologically expressed in the vast majority of human cancers, but the epigenetic regulation of its expression is only beginning to be understood. In particular, the active TERT gene in cancer cells has been characterized as having a hypermethylated CpG island, opposite to the general association of DNA methylation with gene repression. Here, we analyzed TERT promoter CpG methylation in 833 human cancer cell lines representing 23 different tissue types and found hypermethylation of the upstream portion of the CpG island and more conserved hypomethylation of a region including the proximal TERT promoter and exon 1. In cell lines with monoallelic expression of TERT, we found allelic methylation of the proximal TERT promoter. This included cell lines with the -124 or -146 activating promoter mutation as well as wild-type TERT cancer lines. In these cell line types, decreased proximal promoter methylation is associated with the active allele. Compared to cells with monoallelic expression of TERT, lines with biallelic expression of TERT had even lower methylation in the proximal TERT promoter. Thus, in cell lines from cancers of many different tissues, the TERT proximal promoter has canonical DNA methylation, with low methylation correlating with increased TERT expression.

Keywords: TERT; epigenetics; monoallelic gene expression; promoter CpG methylation; telomerase reverse transcriptase.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alleles*
  • Base Sequence
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • DNA Methylation / genetics*
  • Exons / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic*
  • Histone Code
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / enzymology*
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic*
  • Telomerase / genetics*
  • Transcription, Genetic


  • TERT protein, human
  • Telomerase