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Cancer Res. 2010 Nov 15;70(22):9494-504. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-10-0233. Epub 2010 Nov 9.

The telomerase inhibitor imetelstat depletes cancer stem cells in breast and pancreatic cancer cell lines.

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Geron Corporation, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA.


Cancer stem cells (CSC) are rare drug-resistant cancer cell subsets proposed to be responsible for the maintenance and recurrence of cancer and metastasis. Telomerase is constitutively active in both bulk tumor cell and CSC populations but has only limited expression in normal tissues. Thus, inhibition of telomerase has been shown to be a viable approach in controlling cancer growth in nonclinical studies and is currently in phase II clinical trials. In this study, we investigated the effects of imetelstat (GRN163L), a potent telomerase inhibitor, on both the bulk cancer cells and putative CSCs. When breast and pancreatic cancer cell lines were treated with imetelstat in vitro, telomerase activity in the bulk tumor cells and CSC subpopulations were inhibited. Additionally, imetelstat treatment reduced the CSC fractions present in the breast and pancreatic cell lines. In vitro treatment with imetelstat, but not control oligonucleotides, also reduced the proliferation and self-renewal potential of MCF7 mammospheres and resulted in cell death after <4 weeks of treatment. In vitro treatment of PANC1 cells showed reduced tumor engraftment in nude mice, concomitant with a reduction in the CSC levels. Differences between telomerase activity expression levels or telomere length of CSCs and bulk tumor cells in these cell lines did not correlate with the increased sensitivity of CSCs to imetelstat, suggesting a mechanism of action independent of telomere shortening for the effects of imetelstat on the CSC subpopulations. Our results suggest that imetelstat-mediated depletion of CSCs may offer an alternative mechanism by which telomerase inhibition may be exploited for cancer therapy.

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