© 2015 The Authors. Cancer Science published by Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd on behalf of Japanese Cancer Association.
Telomeres, the repetitive sequences at chromosomal ends, protect intact chromosomes. Telomeres progressively shorten through successive rounds of cell divisions, and critically shortened telomeres trigger senescence and apoptosis. The enzyme that elongates telomeres and maintains their structure is known as telomerase. The catalytic subunit of this enzyme (telomerase reverse transcriptase [TERT]) is expressed at a high level in malignant cells, but at a very low level in normal cells. Although telomerase activity was long believed to be the only function of TERT, emerging evidence indicates that TERT plays roles beyond telomeres. For example, TERT contributes to stem cell maintenance and cell reprogramming processes in a manner independent of its canonical function. Even some types of splice variants that lack the telomerase catalytic domains exhibit the functions in a manner that does not depend on telomerase activity. We recently demonstrated that the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP) activity of TERT is involved in regulation of gene silencing and heterochromatic transcription. Moreover, TERT RdRP activity is mediated by a newly identified complex, distinct from the authentic telomerase complex, that plays a role in cancer stem cells in a telomere maintenance independent manner. TERT has attracted interest as a molecular target for anticancer treatment, but previous efforts aimed at developing novel therapeutic strategies focused only on the canonical function of TERT. However, accumulating evidence about the non-canonical functions of TERT led us to speculate that the functions other than telomerase might be therapeutic targets as well. In this review, we discuss the non-canonical functions of TERT and their potential applications for anticancer treatment.