BACKGROUND. Germline mutations in telomerase and other telomere maintenance genes manifest in the premature aging short telomere syndromes. Myelodysplastic syndromes and acute myeloid leukemia (MDS/AML) account for 75% of associated malignancies, but how these cancers overcome the inherited telomere defect is unknown. METHODS. We used ultra-deep targeted sequencing to detect somatic reversion mutations in 17 candidate telomere lengthening genes among controls and patients with short telomere syndromes with and without MDS/AML, and we tested the functional significance of these mutations. RESULTS. While no controls carried somatic mutations in telomere maintenance genes, 29% (16 of 56) of adults with germline telomere maintenance defects carried at least 1 (P < 0.001), and 13% (7 of 56) had 2 or more. In addition to TERT promoter mutations, which were present in 19%, another 13% of patients carried a mutation in POT1 or TERF2IP. POT1 mutations impaired telomere binding in vitro and some mutations were identical to ones seen in familial melanoma associated with longer telomere length. Exclusively in patients with germline defects in telomerase RNA (TR), we identified somatic mutations in nuclear RNA exosome genes RBM7, SKIV2L2, and DIS3, where loss-of-function upregulates mature TR levels. Somatic reversion events in 6 telomere-related genes were more prevalent in patients who were MDS/AML-free (P = 0.02, RR 4.4, 95% CI 1.2–16.7), and no patient with MDS/AML had more than 1 reversion mutation. CONCLUSION. Our data indicate that diverse adaptive somatic mutations arise in the short telomere syndromes. Their presence may alleviate the telomere crisis that promotes transformation to MDS/AML.
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