Telomere analysis of normal and neoplastic hematopoietic cells : studies focusing on fluorescence in situ hybridization and flow cytometry

Abstract: The telomeres are specialized structures at the end of the chromosomes composed of the repeated DNA sequence (TTAGGG)n and specific proteins bound to the DNA. The telomeres protect the chromosomes from degradation and end to end fusions. Due to the end-replication problem, the telomeric DNA shortens every cell division, forcing the cells into senescence at a critical telomere length. This process can be counteracted by activating a specialized enzyme, telomerase, which adds telomeric repeats to the chromosome ends leading to an extended or infinite cellular life span. Telomerase activity is absent in most somatic tissues but is found in germ cells, stem cells, activated lymphocytes and the vast majority of tumor cells and permanent cell lines. Hence, telomerase has been suggested as a target for cancer treatment as malignant cells almost exclusively express the enzyme and in that context telomere length measurements will be of great importance.Telomere length is traditionally measured with a Southern blot based technique. A new method for telomere analysis of cells in suspension, called flow-FISH, was developed based on fluorescence in situ hybridization using a telomeric peptide nucleic acid (PNA) probe,DNA staining with propidium iodide and quantification by flow cytometry. Flow-FISH had high reproducibility and the telomere length measurements showed good correlation with Southern blotting results. The flow-FISH technique also allows studies of cells in specific phases of the cell cycle and the replication timing of telomeric, centromeric and other repetitive sequences were analyzed in a number of cells. Like previous studies, centromeres were shown to replicate late in S phase while the telomere repeats were found to replicate early in S phase or concomitant with the bulk DNA, which is opposite to the patterns described in yeast.In benign immunopurified lymphocytes from tonsils, high telomerase activity was found in germinal center (GC) B cells. This population also had high hTERT mRNA levels and displayed a telomere elongation as shown by flow-FISH and Southern blotting. Combined immunophenotyping and flow-FISH on unpurified tonsil cells confirmed the results.Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the most common leukemia in adults, can be divided into pre-GC CLL, characterized by unmutated immunoglobulin VH genes and worse prognosis, and post-GC CLL, with mutated VH genes and better prognosis. In 61 cases of CLL, telomere length was measured with Southern blotting and VH gene mutation status was analyzed. A new association was found between VH mutation status and telomere length, where cases with longer telomeres and mutated VH genes (post-GC CLL) had better prognosisthan CLL with short telomeres and unmutated VH genes (pre-GC CLL). A larger study of 112 CLL cases was performed using flow-FISH. The same correlation between telomere length and VH mutation status was found but gender seemed to be of importance as telomere length was a significant prognostic factor for the male CLL patients but not in the female group. Age of the patients and spread of disease seemed to affect the prognostic value of VH gene mutation status.