Correlation of chromosomal instability, telomere length and telomere maintenance in microsatellite stable rectal cancer: a molecular subclass of rectal cancer


INTRODUCTION: Colorectal cancer (CRC) tumor DNA is characterized by chromosomal damage termed chromosomal instability (CIN) and excessively shortened telomeres. Up to 80% of CRC is microsatellite stable (MSS) and is historically considered to be chromosomally unstable (CIN+). However, tumor phenotyping depicts some MSS CRC with little or no genetic changes, thus being chromosomally stable (CIN-). MSS CIN- tumors have not been assessed for telomere attrition. EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: MSS rectal cancers from patients ≤50 years old with Stage II (B2 or higher) or Stage III disease were assessed for CIN, telomere length and telomere maintenance mechanism (telomerase activation [TA]; alternative lengthening of telomeres [ALT]). Relative telomere length was measured by qPCR in somatic epithelial and cancer DNA. TA was measured with the TRAPeze assay, and tumors were evaluated for the presence of C-circles indicative of ALT. p53 mutation status was assessed in all available samples. DNA copy number changes were evaluated with Spectral Genomics aCGH. RESULTS: Tumors were classified as chromosomally stable (CIN-) and chromosomally instable (CIN+) by degree of DNA copy number changes. CIN- tumors (35%; n=6) had fewer copy number changes (<17% of their clones with DNA copy number changes) than CIN+ tumors (65%; n=13) which had high levels of copy number changes in 20% to 49% of clones. Telomere lengths were longer in CIN- compared to CIN+ tumors (p=0.0066) and in those in which telomerase was not activated (p=0.004). Tumors exhibiting activation of telomerase had shorter tumor telomeres (p=0.0040); and tended to be CIN+ (p=0.0949). CONCLUSIONS: MSS rectal cancer appears to represent a heterogeneous group of tumors that may be categorized both on the basis of CIN status and telomere maintenance mechanism. MSS CIN- rectal cancers appear to have longer telomeres than those of MSS CIN+ rectal cancers and to utilize ALT rather than activation of telomerase.