J Cancer 2012; 3:67-82. doi:10.7150/jca.3965 This volume
AstraZeneca - DNA Damage Response, Bioscience, Oncology iMed, Alderley Park, Cheshire, SK10 4TG, England, UK.
The vast majority of cancers commandeer the activity of telomerase - the remarkable enzyme responsible for prolonging cellular lifespan by maintaining the length of telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. Telomerase is only normally active in embryonic and highly proliferative somatic cells. Thus, targeting telomerase is an attractive anti-cancer therapeutic rationale currently under investigation in various phases of clinical development. However, previous reports suggest that an average of 10-15% of all cancers lose the functional activity of telomerase and most of these turn to an Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres pathway (ALT). ALT-positive tumours will therefore not respond to anti-telomerase therapies and there is a real possibility that such drugs would be toxic to normal telomerase-utilising cells and ultimately select for resistant cells that activate an ALT mechanism. ALT exploits certain DNA damage response (DDR) components to counteract telomere shortening and rapid trimming. ALT has been reported in many cancer subtypes including sarcoma, gastric carcinoma, central nervous system malignancies, subtypes of kidney (Wilm's Tumour) and bladder carcinoma, mesothelioma, malignant melanoma and germ cell testicular cancers to name but a few. A recent heroic study that analysed ALT in over six thousand tumour samples supports this historical spread, although only reporting an approximate 4% prevalence. This review highlights the various methods of ALT detection, unravels several molecular ALT models thought to promote telomere maintenance and elongation, spotlights the DDR components known to facilitate these and explores why certain tissues are more likely to subvert DDR away from its usually protective functions, resulting in a predictive pattern of prevalence in specific cancer subsets.
Keywords: telomerase, cancer, Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres, DNA damage response, immortality