PRESS RELEASE: Discovery that telomeres are transcribed into RNA could help explain why cancer cells never stop dividing

Discovery that telomeres are transcribed into RNA could help explain why cancer cells never stop dividing 

Lausanne, Switzerland, October 4, 2007 – The group from Prof. Joachim Lingner working at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC), in collaboration with the University of Pavia (Italy) has discovered that telomeres, the repeated DNA-protein complexes at the end of chromosomes that progressively shorten every time a cell divides, also contain RNA. This discovery, published online today in Science*, calls into question our understanding of how telomeres function, and may provide a new avenue of attack for stopping telomere renewal in cancer cells.

Inside the cell nucleus, all our genetic information is located on twisted, double stranded molecules of DNA which are packaged into chromosomes. At the end of these chromosomes are telomeres, zones of repeated chains of DNA that are often compared to the plastic tips on shoelaces because they prevent chromosomes from fraying, and thus genetic information from getting scrambled when cells divide.  The telomere is like a cellular clock, because every time a cell divides, the telomere shortens. After a cell has grown and divided a few dozen times, the telomeres turn on an alarm system that prevents further division. If this clock doesn’t function right, cells either end up with damaged chromosomes or they become “immortal” and continue dividing endlessly – either way it’s bad news and leads to cancer or disease. Understanding how telomeres function, and how this function can potentially be manipulated, is thus extremely important.

The DNA in the chromosome acts like a sort of instruction manual for the cell. Genetic information is transcribed into segments of RNA that then go out into the cell and carry out a variety of tasks such as making proteins, catalyzing chemical reactions, or fulfilling structural roles. It was thought that telomeres were “silent” – that their DNA was not transcribed into strands of RNA. The present article has turned this theory on its head by discovering telomeric RNA and showing that this RNA is transcribed from DNA on the telomere.

Why is this important? In embryonic cells (and some stem cells), an enzyme called telomerase rebuilds the telomere so that the cells can keep dividing. Over time, this telomerase dwindles and eventually the telomere shortens and the cell becomes inactive. In cancer cells, the telomerase enzyme keeps rebuilding telomeres long past the cell’s normal lifetime. The cells become “immortal”, endlessly dividing, resulting in a tumor. Researchers estimate that telomere maintenance activity occurs in about 90% of human cancers. But the mechanism by which this maintenance takes place is not well understood. The researchers discovered that the RNA in the telomere is regulated by a protein in the telomerase enzyme.  Their discovery may thus uncover key elements of telomere function.

“It’s too early to give yet a definitive answer,” to whether this could lead to new cancer therapies, notes Joachim Lingner, senior author on the paper. “But the experiments published in the paper suggest that telomeric RNA may provide a new target to attack telomere function in cancer cells to stop their growth.”

Joachim Lingner is an Associate Professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Funding for this research was provided in part by the Swiss Cancer League and the Swiss National Science Foundation NCCR “Frontiers in Genetics”.