Telomerase activity and telomere length in thyroid neoplasia: biological and clinical implications



Despite several recent studies, the biological status and clinical relevance of telomerase expression in tumours derived from the thyroid follicular cell remain controversial. This study has analysed a series of normal, benign, and malignant thyroid samples using two novel approaches: the use of purified epithelial cell fractions to eliminate false-positives due to telomerase-positive infiltrating lymphocytes; and the simultaneous measurement of telomere length to provide a clearer interpretation of telomere dynamics in thyroid neoplasia. The data obtained support the prediction that the epithelial component of non-neoplastic thyroid and of follicular adenomas is telomerase-negative, any positive results being explicable by lymphocyte infiltration. In contrast, many malignant tumours, both follicular and papillary, were telomerase-positive. However, serial dilution of extracts indicated a wide spectrum of activity in these cancers, possibly related to variation in the proportion of telomerase-positive cells. Furthermore, an unexpectedly high proportion were telomerase-negative, a finding which was not explicable by technical problems such as TRAP (telomeric repeat amplification protocol) assay sensitivity. Many of these apparently telomerase-negative tumours had abnormally long telomeres. Correlation of telomerase and telomere length data suggests that thyroid cancers fall into three biological groups: telomerase-positive lesions, consistent with the conventional model of telomere erosion followed by telomerase reactivation; telomerase-negative tumours, which maintain telomere length by a mechanism independent of telomerase; and telomerase-negative tumours which are still undergoing telomere erosion and may therefore be composed of mortal cancer cells. From a clinical standpoint, it is concluded that telomerase detection on unfractionated tissue, such as fine needle aspirates, is of no value as a marker of malignancy in follicular lesions, due to both low sensitivity and specificity. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.