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J Biol Chem. 2004 Oct 15;279(42):43634-45. Epub 2004 Aug 10.

Inactivation of p16INK4a, with retention of pRB and p53/p21cip1 function, in human MRC5 fibroblasts that overcome a telomere-independent crisis during immortalization.

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  • 1Children's Cancer Institute Australia for Medical Research, Randwick, New South Wales 2031.


Recent investigations, including our own, have shown that specific strains of fibroblasts expressing telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT) have an extended lifespan, but are not immortal. We previously demonstrated that hTERT-transduced MRC5 fetal lung fibroblasts (MRC5hTERTs) bypassed senescence but eventually succumbed to a second mortality barrier (crisis). In the present study, 67 MRC5hTERT clones were established by limiting dilution of a mass culture. Whereas 39/67 clones had an extended lifespan, all 39 extended lifespan clones underwent crisis. 11 of 39 clones escaped crisis and were immortalized. There was no apparent relationship between the fate of clones at crisis and the level of telomerase activity. Telomeres were hyperextended in the majority of the clones analyzed. There was no difference in telomere length of pre-crisis compared with post-crisis and immortal clones, indicating that hyperextended telomeres were conducive for immortalization and confirming that crisis was independent of telomere length. Immortalization of MRC5hTERT cells was associated with repression of the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p16INK4a and up-regulation of pRB. However, the regulation of pRB phosphorylation and the response of the p53/p21cip1/waf1 pathway were normal in immortal cells subject to genotoxic stress. Overexpression of oncogenic ras failed to de-repress p16INK4a in immortal cells. Furthermore, expression of ras enforced senescent-like growth arrest in p16INK4a-positive, but not p16INK4a-negative MRC5hTERT cells. Immortal cells expressing ras formed small, infrequent colonies in soft agarose, but were non-tumorigenic. Overall, these results implicate the inactivation of p16INK4a as a critical event for overcoming telomere-independent crisis, immortalizing MRC5 fibroblasts and overcoming ras-induced premature senescence.

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