Telomere maintenance is a hallmark of cancer. Most tumors maintain telomere length via reactivation of telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) expression. Identifying clinically translatable imaging biomarkers of TERT can enable noninvasive assessment of tumor proliferation and response to therapy.
We used RNAi, doxycycline-inducible expression systems, and pharmacologic inhibitors to mechanistically delineate the association between TERT and metabolism in preclinical patient-derived tumor models. Deuterium magnetic resonance spectroscopy (2H-MRS), which is a novel, translational metabolic imaging modality, was used for imaging TERT in cells and tumor-bearing mice in vivo.
Our results indicate that TERT expression is associated with elevated NADH in multiple cancers, including glioblastoma, oligodendroglioma, melanoma, neuroblastoma, and hepatocellular carcinoma. Mechanistically, TERT acts via the metabolic regulator FOXO1 to upregulate nicotinamide phosphoribosyl transferase, which is the key enzyme for NAD+ biosynthesis, and the glycolytic enzyme glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase, which converts NAD+ to NADH. Because NADH is essential for pyruvate flux to lactate, we show that 2H-MRS–based assessment of lactate production from [U-2H]-pyruvate reports on TERT expression in preclinical tumor models in vivo, including at clinical field strength (3T). Importantly, [U-2H]-pyruvate reports on early response to therapy in mice bearing orthotopic patient-derived gliomas at early timepoints before radiographic alterations can be visualized by MRI.
Elevated NADH is a metabolic consequence of TERT expression in cancer. Importantly, [U-2H]-pyruvate reports on early response to therapy, prior to anatomic alterations, thereby providing clinicians with a novel tool for assessment of tumor burden and treatment response in cancer.