Cancer as a Microevolutionary Process Affecting Telomere Structure and Dynamics: The Contribution of Telomeres to Cancer
J. Arturo Londoño-Vallejo
Telomeres play fundamental roles in genome stability, nuclear architecture and chromosome pairing during meiosis. They shorten at every cell division and may be re‑elongated or not depending on the presence of the dedicated enzyme, telomerase. Since in most human somatic cells telomerase is not expressed, shortening of telomeres during development and aging is the rule. Short telomeres being, under physiological conditions, incompatible with extended cell proliferation, telomere length defines the proliferation potential of a cell and operates as a mechanism to prevent uncontrolled cell growth. Conversely, in cells in which proliferation checkpoints have been abolished, shortening of telomeres causes chromosomes to fuse and to initiate cycles of breakage‑fusion‑bridge thus becoming a strong driving force for genome instability. In vitro, transformed cells with highly unstable genomes because of severe telomere shortening accumulate deleterious genetic changes and die (crisis). At the same time, random genetic or epigenetic changes may allow cells to acquire a telomere maintenance mechanism (as well as other tumor phenotypes) and to become immortal. Although telomere shortening and other types of telomere dysfunction probably contribute to the genome instability detected in early tumors in vivo, the direct contributions of dysfunctional telomeres to the acquisition of tumor phenotypes in humans remain largely unspecified.