© The Author(s) 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.
Telomere erosion causes cell mortality, suggesting that longer telomeres enable more cell divisions. In telomerase-positive human cancer cells, however, telomeres are often kept shorter than those of surrounding normal tissues. Recently, we showed that cancer cell telomere elongation represses innate immune genes and promotes their differentiation in vivo. This implies that short telomeres contribute to cancer malignancy, but it is unclear how such genetic repression is caused by elongated telomeres. Here, we report that telomeric repeat-containing RNA (TERRA) induces a genome-wide alteration of gene expression in telomere-elongated cancer cells. Using three different cell lines, we found that telomere elongation up-regulates TERRA signal and down-regulates innate immune genes such as STAT1, ISG15 and OAS3 in vivo. Ectopic TERRA oligonucleotides repressed these genes even in cells with short telomeres under three-dimensional culture conditions. This appeared to occur from the action of G-quadruplexes (G4) in TERRA, because control oligonucleotides had no effect and a nontelomeric G4-forming oligonucleotide phenocopied the TERRA oligonucleotide. Telomere elongation and G4-forming oligonucleotides showed similar gene expression signatures. Most of the commonly suppressed genes were involved in the innate immune system and were up-regulated in various cancers. We propose that TERRA G4 counteracts cancer malignancy by suppressing innate immune genes.