Copyright © 2015, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Cancer cells rely on telomerase or the alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT) pathway to overcome replicative mortality. ALT is mediated by recombination and is prevalent in a subset of human cancers, yet whether it can be exploited therapeutically remains unknown. Loss of the chromatin-remodeling protein ATRX associates with ALT in cancers. Here, we show that ATRX loss compromises cell-cycle regulation of the telomeric noncoding RNA TERRA and leads to persistent association of replication protein A (RPA) with telomeres after DNA replication, creating a recombinogenic nucleoprotein structure. Inhibition of the protein kinase ATR, a critical regulator of recombination recruited by RPA, disrupts ALT and triggers chromosome fragmentation and apoptosis in ALT cells. The cell death induced by ATR inhibitors is highly selective for cancer cells that rely on ALT, suggesting that such inhibitors may be useful for treatment of ALT-positive cancers.