Telomeres are TTAGGG tandem repeats capping chromosomal ends and partially controlled by the telomerase enzyme. The EGFR pathway putatively regulates telomerase function, prompting an investigation of telomere length (TL) and its association with anti-epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) therapy in metastatic colorectal cancer (mCRC).
Colorectal cancer cell lines were treated with multiple drugs and sensitivity determined. Clinical information was gathered from 75 patients who had received anti-EGFR drugs. Telomere length was measured using a validated qRT-PCR technique.
In CRC cell lines, TL independently predicted cetuximab sensitivity. Cells with shorter TL had growth inhibition of 18.6±3.41% as compared with 41.39±8.58% in longer TL (P=0.02). These in vitro findings were validated clinically, in a robust multivariate model. Among patients with KRas WT tumours, those with longer TL had a superior median progression-free survival (PFS) of 24.9 weeks than those with shorter TL; median 11.1 weeks, HR 0.31; P=0.048.
Telomere length could be a potential unique biomarker predictive of clinical benefit (PFS) of mCRC patients treated with anti-EGFR therapy. This is the novel demonstration of a complex hitherto undescribed interaction, placing anti-EGFR therapy, EGFR pathway, and the telomerase complex within a clinical context.