Apoptosis is a genetically encoded cell death process and is a pathway that may be disrupted in tumor cells. Therefore, therapies that restore the ability to undergo apoptosis are promising for the treatment of tumor cells. We have demonstrated that the transfer of apoptosis-inducible genes inhibits the growth of tumors in vitro and in vivo through induction of apoptosis. However, to restrict induction of apoptosis to tumor cells, we need to explore a tumor-specific expression system of these genes. In the present study, we developed the telomerase-specific transfer system of apoptosis- inducible genes, utilizing the promoter of the human telomerase catalytic subunit (hTERT) gene. Approximately 90% of tumors have telomerase activity whereas most normal cells do not express the activity. These observations indicate that telomerase is a particularly attractive target for the tumor- specific expression system of vectors. We demonstrate here that by using the hTERT promoter-driven caspase-8 expression vector (hTERT/caspase-8), apoptosis is restricted to telomerase-positive tumor cells of wide range, and is not seen in normal fibroblast cells without telomerase activity. Furthermore, treatment of subcutaneous tumors in nude mice with the hTERT/caspase-8 construct inhibited tumor growth significantly because of induction of apoptosis (p <0.01). The telomerase-specific expression of apoptosis-inducible genes afforded by the hTERT promoter, therefore, may be a novel and promising targeting approach for the treatment of tumors with telomerase activity.
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