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Potential Risks in the Paradigm of Basic to Translational Research: A Critical Evaluation of qPCR Telomere Size Techniques.

Authors: Arthur J AJ. Lustig
Published: 08/12/2015, Journal of cancer epidemiology & treatment


Real time qPCR has become the method of choice for rapid large-scale telomere length measurements. Large samples sizes are critical for clinical trials, and epidemiological studies. QPCR has become such routine procedure that it is often used with little critical analysis. With proper controls, the mean telomere size can be derived from the data and even the size can be estimated. But there is a need for more consistent and reliable controls that will provide closer to the actual mean size can be obtained with uniform consensus controls. Although originating at the level of basic telomere research, many researchers less familiar with telomeres often misunderstand the source and significance of the qPCR metric. These include researchers and clinicians who are interested in having a rapid tool to produce exciting results in disease prognostics and diagnostics than in the multiple characteristics of telomeres that form the basis of the measurement. But other characteristics of the non-bimodal and heterogeneous telomeres as well as the complexities of telomere dynamics are not easily related to qPCR mean telomere values. The qPCR metric does not reveal the heterogeneity and dynamics of telomeres. This is a critical issue since mutations in multiple genes including telomerase can cause telomere dysfunction and a loss of repeats. The smallest cellular telomere has been shown to arrest growth of the cell carrying the dysfunction telomere. A goal for the future is a simple method that takes into account the heterogeneity by measuring the highest and lowest values as part of the scheme to compare. In the absence of this technique, Southern blots need to be performed in a subset of qPCR samples for both mean telomere size and the upper and lower extremes of the distribution. Most importantly, there is a need for greater transparency in discussing the limitations of the qPCR data. Given the potentially exciting qPCR telomere size results emerging from clinical studies that relate qPCR mean telomere size estimates to disease states, the current ambiguities have become urgent issues to validate the findings and to set the right course for future clinical investigations.