Pervasive promoter hypermethylation of silenced TERT alleles in human cancers

D. Esopi, M. K. Graham, J. Brosnan-Cashman, J. Meyers, A. Vaghasia, A. Gupta, B. Kumar, Michael Haffner, C. M. Heaphy, A. M. de Marzo, A. K. Meeker, W. G. Nelson, S. J. Wheelan, S. Yegnasubramanian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In cancers, maintenance of telomeres often occurs through activation of the catalytic subunit of telomerase, encoded by TERT. Yet, most cancers show only modest levels of telomerase gene expression, even in the context of activating hotspot promoter mutations (C228T and C250T). The role of epigenetic mechanisms, including DNA methylation, in regulating telomerase gene expression in cancer cells is not fully understood. Here, we have carried out the most comprehensive characterization to date of TERT promoter methylation using ultra-deep bisulfite sequencing spanning the CpG island surrounding the core TERT promoter in 96 different human cell lines. In general, we observed that immortalized and cancer cell lines were hypermethylated in a region upstream of the recurrent C228T and C250T TERT promoter mutations, while non-malignant primary cells were comparatively hypomethylated in this region. However, at the allele-level, we generally observe hypermethylation of promoter sequences in cancer cells is associated with repressed expression, and the remaining unmethylated alleles marked with open chromatin are largely responsible for the observed TERT expression in cancer cells. Our findings suggest that hypermethylation of the TERT promoter alleles signals transcriptional repression of those alleles, leading to the attenuation of TERT activation in cancer cells.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - Jan 30 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics(all)

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