Somatic reversion impacts myelodysplastic syndromes and acute myeloid leukemia evolution in the short telomere disorders

J Clin Invest. 2021 Sep 15;131(18):e147598. doi: 10.1172/JCI147598.


BACKGROUNDGermline mutations in telomerase and other telomere maintenance genes manifest in the premature aging short telomere syndromes. Myelodysplastic syndromes and acute myeloid leukemia (MDS/AML) account for 75% of associated malignancies, but how these cancers overcome the inherited telomere defect is unknown.METHODSWe used ultra-deep targeted sequencing to detect somatic reversion mutations in 17 candidate telomere lengthening genes among controls and patients with short telomere syndromes with and without MDS/AML, and we tested the functional significance of these mutations.RESULTSWhile no controls carried somatic mutations in telomere maintenance genes, 29% (16 of 56) of adults with germline telomere maintenance defects carried at least 1 (P < 0.001), and 13% (7 of 56) had 2 or more. In addition to TERT promoter mutations, which were present in 19%, another 13% of patients carried a mutation in POT1 or TERF2IP. POT1 mutations impaired telomere binding in vitro and some mutations were identical to ones seen in familial melanoma associated with longer telomere length. Exclusively in patients with germline defects in telomerase RNA (TR), we identified somatic mutations in nuclear RNA exosome genes RBM7, SKIV2L2, and DIS3, where loss-of-function upregulates mature TR levels. Somatic reversion events in 6 telomere-related genes were more prevalent in patients who were MDS/AML-free (P = 0.02, RR 4.4, 95% CI 1.2-16.7), and no patient with MDS/AML had more than 1 reversion mutation.CONCLUSIONOur data indicate that diverse adaptive somatic mutations arise in the short telomere syndromes. Their presence may alleviate the telomere crisis that promotes transformation to MDS/AML.FUNDINGThis work was supported by the NIH, the Commonwealth Foundation, the S&R Foundation Kuno Award, the Williams Foundation, the Vera and Joseph Dresner Foundation, the MacMillan Pathway to Independence Award, the American Society of Hematology Scholar Award, the Johns Hopkins Research Program for Medical Students, and the Turock Scholars Fund.

Keywords: Clonal selection; Genetics; Leukemias; Oncology; Telomeres.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Female
  • Germ-Line Mutation
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / genetics*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes / genetics*
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • RNA / genetics
  • Shelterin Complex
  • Telomerase / genetics
  • Telomere / genetics*
  • Telomere Shortening / genetics
  • Telomere-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Young Adult


  • POT1 protein, human
  • Shelterin Complex
  • Telomere-Binding Proteins
  • telomerase RNA
  • RNA
  • TERT protein, human
  • Telomerase