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Genome Integr. 2013 May 29;4(1):4. doi: 10.1186/2041-9414-4-4.

Aging phenotypes in cultured normal human mammary epithelial cells are correlated with decreased telomerase activity independent of telomere length.

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Life Science Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
Contributed equally



Shortening of telomeres, which are essential for maintenance of genomic integrity, is a mechanism commonly associated with the aging process. Here we ascertained whether changes in telomere lengths or telomerase activity correlated with age in normal human mammary epithelial cells (HMEC), or with phenotypes of aging in breast. Accordingly, flow cytometry fluorescence in situ hybridization (flowFISH) was used to determine relative telomere lengths (RTL), and telomerase activity was measured by the telomeric repeat amplification protocol (TRAP), in a collection of 41 primary HMEC strains established from women aged 16 to 91 years.


RTL measurements of HMEC strains that were heterogeneous with respect to lineage composition revealed no significant associations between telomere length with age, maximum observed population doublings, or with lineage composition of the strains. However, within strains, luminal epithelial and cKit-expressing epithelial progenitor cells that were flow cytometry-enriched from individual HMEC strains exhibited significantly shorter telomeres relative to isogenic myoepithelial cells (P < 0.01). In unsorted strains, detectable telomerase activity did not correlate with RTL. Telomerase activity declined with age; the average age of strains that exhibited TRAP activity was 29.7 ± 3.9y, whereas the average age of strains with no detectable TRAP activity was 49.0 ± 4.9y (P < 0.01). Non-detectable TRAP activity also was correlated with phenotypes of aging previously described in HMEC strains; increased proportions of CD227-expressing luminal epithelial cells (P < 0.05) and cKit-expressing progenitor cells (P < 0.05).


Telomere shortening did not correlate with the chronological ages of HMEC strains, whereas decreased telomerase activity correlated with age and with lineage distribution phenotypes characteristic of aging.

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