Telomerase enzyme is a ribonucleoprotein maintaining the length of the telomeres by adding G-rich repeats to the end of the eukaryotic chromosomes. Normal human somatic cells, cultured in vitro, have a strictly limited proliferative potential undergoing senescence after about 50e70 population doublings. In contrast, most of the tumor cells have unlimited replicative potential. Although the mechanisms of immortalization are not understood completely at a genetic level, the key role of the telomere/telomerase system in the process is clear. The DNA replication machinery is not able to replicate fully the DNA at the very end of the chromosomes; therefore, about 50e200 nucleotides are lost during each of the replication cycles resulting in a gradual decrease of telomere length. Critically short telomere induces senescence, subsequent crisis and cell death. In tumor cells, however, the telomerase enzyme prevents the formation of critically short telomeres, adding GGTTAG repeats to the 30 end of the chromosomes immortalizing the cells. Immortality is one of the hallmarks of cancer. Besides the catalytic activity dependent telomere maintenance, catalytic activity-independent effects of telomerase may also be involved in the regulation of cell cycle.
The telomere/telomerase system offers two possibilities to intervene the proliferative activity of the cell: (1) inhibition the telomere maintenance by inhibiting the telomerase activity; (2) activating the residual telomerase enzyme or inducing telomerase expression. Whilst the former approach could abolish the limitless replicative potential of malignant cells, the activation of telomerase might be utilized for treating degenerative diseases. Here, we review the current status of telomerase therapeutics, summarizing the activities of those pharmacological agents which either inhibit or activate the enzyme. We also discuss the future opportunities and challenges of research on pharmacological intervention of telomerase activity.