Low p16INK4a Expression in Early Passage Human Prostate Basal Epithelial Cells Enables Immortalization by Telomerase Expression Alone

Mindy Kim Graham, Lorenzo Principessa, Lizamma Antony, Alan K. Meeker, John T. Isaacs*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: There are two principal senescence barriers that must be overcome to successfully immortalize primary human epithelial cells in culture, stress-induced senescence, and replicative senescence. The p16INK4a/retinoblastoma protein (p16/Rb) pathway mediates stress-induced senescence, and is generally upregulated by primary epithelial cells in response to the artificial conditions from tissue culture. Replicative senescence is associated with telomere loss. Following each round of cell division, telomeres progressively shorten. Once telomeres shorten to a critical length, the DNA damage response pathway is activated, and the tumor suppressor p53 pathway triggers replicative senescence. Exogenous expression of telomerase in normal human epithelial cells extends the replicative capacity of cells, and in some cases, immortalizes cells. However reliable immortalization of epithelial cells usually requires telomerase activity coupled with inactivation of the p16/Rb pathway. METHODS: A lentiviral vector, pLOX-TERT-iresTK (Addgene #12245), containing a CMV promoter upstream of a bicistronic coding cassette that includes loxP sites flanking the catalytic subunit of human telomerase gene (TERT) and herpes simplex virus type-1 thymidine kinase gene (HSV1-tk) was used to transduce normal prostate basal epithelial cells (PrECs) initiated in cell culture from prostate cancer patients undergoing radical prostatectomies. RESULTS: Transduction of early (i.e., <7) passage PrECs with TERT led to successful immortalization. However, attempts to immortalize late (i.e., >7) passage PrECs were unsuccessful. Late passage PrECs, which acquired elevated p16, were unable to overcome the senescence barrier. Immortalized PrECs (TERT-PrECs) retained a normal male karyotype and low p16 expression. Additionally, TERT-PrECs were non-tumorigenic when inoculated into intact male immunodeficient NSG mice. CONCLUSIONS: The present studies document that early passage human PrECs have sufficiently low p16 to permit immortalization by TERT expression alone. TERT-PrECs developed using this transduction approach provides an appropriate and experimentally facile model for clarifying the molecular mechanism(s) involved in both immortalization of human PrECs, as well as identifying genetic/epigenetic “drivers” for conversion of these immortalized non-tumorigenic cells into fully lethal prostate cancers. Notably, loxP sites flank the exogenous TERT gene in the TERT-PrECs. Cre recombinase can be used to excise TERT, and resolve whether TERT expression is required for these cells to be fully transformed into lethal cancer. Prostate 77: 374–384, 2017.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)374-384
Number of pages11
Issue number4
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • prostate epithelial cells (PrECs)
  • replicative senescence
  • stasis
  • stress-induced senescence
  • telomerase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Urology
  • Oncology


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