Prevention of telomere erosion through acquisition of telomerase activity is thought to be an essential mechanism in most human cancer cells for avoidance of cellular senescence and crisis. It has been generally assumed that once telomerase has been activated, no further telomere shortening should ensue. We show here, however, that a much more complex pattern of telomere dynamics can exist in telomerase-positive immortal cancer cells. Using a panel of subclones derived from a human thyroid cancer cell line, K1E7, we found that some clones show persistent decline in mean telomere restriction fragment (TRF) length by up to 2 kb over 450 population doublings (pd), despite sustained high telomerase activity (as assessed by the in vitro "TRAP" assay). TRF length subsequently stabilized at around 5 kb, but with no corresponding increase in telomerase activity. One clone showed an even more unexpected biphasic time course, with the mean TRF length initially increasing by 1.5 kb over 90 pd, before "plateauing" and then returning over a similar period to its original value, again without any correlation to TRAP activity. Such dissociations between telomere dynamics and telomerase activity support the existence of additional controls on telomere length in the intact cell. Our observations are consistent with current negative-feedback models of telomere length regulation by telomere binding proteins and these cell lines should prove useful experimental tools for their further evaluation.