To investigate the role of telomerase in the multistage pathogenesis of lung cancer, we examined 205 fresh and archival tissue samples obtained from 40 patients, 34 of whom had invasive lung carcinoma, 5 with carcinoma in situ (CIS) without invasion, and 1 without lung carcinoma. We analyzed samples for telomerase enzyme activity using the semiquantitative PCR-based telomeric repeat amplification protocol assay (131 samples) or by a radioactive in situ hybridization method for expression of the RNA component of human telomerase (hTR; 74 samples). A subset of samples was assayed by both methods, and the correlation was excellent (30 of 36; 83%). With the exception of a carcinoid tumor and a necrotic squamous cell carcinoma, all tumor cells were moderate to strongly positive for both hTR and telomerase activity, except for foci of keratinization in squamous cell carcinomas. Telomerase positivity, with weak enzyme activity and/or low hTR expression, was present in basal epithelial cells of large bronchi, both histologically normal (26%) and hyperplastic (71%), and in 23% of peripheral lung samples (in epithelium of small bronchi and bronchioles or lymphoid aggregates). More advanced epithelial changes (metaplasia, dysplasia, and CIS) were associated with telomerase dysregulation. Dysregulation in preneoplasia was manifested in three ways: almost all such lesions expressed hTR, although enzyme activity levels were several-fold lower than in the corresponding invasive tumors; cells throughout these multilayered processes expressed hTR; and intense, focal up-regulation of hTR occurred in CIS foci in the vicinity of invasive cancers. Alveolar cells and areas of atypical adenomatous hyperplasia (possible precursor lesions for peripheral adenocarcinomas) were negative. Our studies demonstrate that dysregulation of telomerase occurs early in the multistage pathogenesis of bronchogenic lung carcinomas and that intense focal localized hTR expression in CIS may indicate imminent invasion.


This work was supported in part by Contract N01-CN-45580-01, Early Detection Research Network, National Cancer Institute, and Specialized Program of Research Excellence Grant 1-P50-CA70907-01 from the National Cancer Institute.

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