Mutations in the promoter of the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) gene are the paradigm of a cross-cancer alteration in a noncoding region. TERT promoter mutations (TPM) are biomarkers of poor prognosis in cancer, including thyroid tumors. TPMs enhance TERT transcription, which is otherwise silenced in adult tissues, thus reactivating a bona fide oncoprotein. To study TERT deregulation and its downstream consequences, we generated a Tert mutant promoter mouse model via CRISPR/Cas9 engineering of the murine equivalent locus (Tert−123C>T) and crossed it with thyroid-specific BrafV600E-mutant mice. We also employed an alternative model of Tert overexpression (K5-Tert). Whereas all BrafV600E animals developed well-differentiated papillary thyroid tumors, 29% and 36% of BrafV600E+Tert−123C>T and BrafV600E+K5-Tert mice progressed to poorly differentiated cancers at week 20, respectively. Tert-upregulated tumors showed increased mitosis and necrosis in areas of solid growth, and older animals displayed anaplastic-like features, that is, spindle cells and macrophage infiltration. Murine TPM increased Tert transcription in vitro and in vivo, but temporal and intratumoral heterogeneity was observed. RNA-sequencing of thyroid tumor cells showed that processes other than the canonical Tert-mediated telomere maintenance role operate in these specimens. Pathway analysis showed that MAPK and PI3K/AKT signaling, as well as processes not previously associated with this tumor etiology, involving cytokine, and chemokine signaling, were overactivated. These models constitute useful preclinical tools to understand the cell-autonomous and microenvironment-related consequences of Tert-mediated progression in advanced thyroid cancers and other aggressive tumors carrying TPMs.
Telomerase-driven cancer progression activates pathways that can be dissected and perhaps therapeutically exploited.