Both Rb/p16INK4a inactivation and telomerase activity are required to immortalize human epithelial cells

Nature. 1998 Nov 5;396(6706):84-8. doi: 10.1038/23962.


Normal human cells undergo a limited number of divisions in culture and enter a non-dividing state called replicative senescence. Senescence is accompanied by several changes, including an increase in inhibitors of cyclin-dependent kinases and telomere shortening. The mechanisms by which viral oncogenes reverse these processes are not fully understood, although a general requirement for oncoproteins such as human papillomavirus E6 and E7 has suggested that the p53 and Rb pathways are targeted. Expression of the catalytic component of telomerase, hTERT, alone significantly extends the lifespan of human fibroblasts. Here we show that telomerase activity is not sufficient for immortalization of human keratinocyte or mammary epithelial cells: we find that neither addition of hTERT nor induction of telomerase activity by E6, both of which are active in maintaining telomere length, results in immortalization. Inactivation of the Rb/p16 pathway by E7 or downregulation of p16 expression, in combination with telomerase activity, however, is able to immortalize epithelial cells efficiently. Elimination of p53 and of the DNA-damage-induced G1 checkpoint is not necessary for immortalization, neither is elimination of p19ARF.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Breast / cytology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Cell Transformation, Viral
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cellular Senescence / physiology*
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase Inhibitor p16 / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase Inhibitor p16 / physiology*
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Enzyme Induction
  • Humans
  • Keratinocytes / cytology
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral / physiology
  • Proteins / physiology
  • RNA*
  • Repressor Proteins*
  • Retinoblastoma Protein / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Retinoblastoma Protein / physiology*
  • Telomerase / physiology*


  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase Inhibitor p16
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • E6 protein, Human papillomavirus type 16
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral
  • Proteins
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Retinoblastoma Protein
  • telomerase RNA
  • RNA
  • Telomerase