Telomerase is a protein-RNA enzyme complex that adds a six-base DNA sequence (TTAGGG) to the ends of chromosomes and thereby prevents their shortening. Reduced telomerase activity is associated with cell differentiation and accelerated cellular senescence, whereas increased telomerase activity is associated with cell transformation and immortalization. Because many types of cancer have been associated with reduced apoptosis, whereas cell differentiation and senescence have been associated with increased apoptosis, we tested the hypothesis that telomerase activity is mechanistically involved in the regulation of apoptosis. Levels of telomerase activity in cultured pheochromocytoma cells decreased prior to cell death in cells undergoing apoptosis. Treatment of cells with the oligodeoxynucleotide TTAGGG or with 3,3'-diethyloxadicarbocyanine, agents that inhibit telomerase activity in a concentration-dependent manner, significantly enhanced mitochondrial dysfunction and apoptosis induced by staurosporine, Fe2+ (an oxidative insult), and amyloid β-peptide (a cytotoxic peptide linked to neuronal apoptosis in Alzheimer's disease). Overexpression of Bcl-2 and the caspase inhibitor zVAD-fmk protected cells against apoptosis in the presence of telomerase inhibitors, suggesting a site of action of telomerase prior to caspase activation and mitochondrial dysfunction. Telomerase activity decreased in cells during the process of nerve growth factor-induced differentiation, and such differentiated cells exhibited increased sensitivity to apoptosis. Our data establish a role for telomerase in suppressing apoptotic signaling cascades and suggest a mechanism whereby telomerase may suppress cellular senescence and promote tumor formation.
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