In human somatic cells proliferation results in telomere shortening due to the end replication problem and the absence of adequate levels of telomerase activity. The progressive loss of telomeric DNA has been associated with replicative senescence. Maintenance of telomere structure and function is, therefore, an essential requisite for cells that proliferate indefinitely. Human cells that have acquired the immortal phenotype mostly rely on telomerase to compensate for telomere shortening with cell division. However, a certain percentage of immortalized cell lines and human tumors maintain their telomeres by Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres (ALT), a mechanism not fully understood but apparently based on homologous recombination. Here, we report the isolation of an immortal human cell line that is derived from an ALT cell line but maintains telomeres in the absence of key features of ALT and of telomerase. The properties of these cells suggest that the identification of ALT cells may not be reliably based on known ALT markers. This finding is of relevance for discriminating between the mortal and immortal phenotype among telomerase-negative cells in vitro and in vivo, particularly in regard to the development of pharmacological approaches for cancer treatment based on telomerase inhibition.
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