OPINION: A second chance for telomerase reverse transcriptase in anticancer immunotherapy

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Abstract | Telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) is a self-antigen that is expressed constitutively in many tumours, and is, therefore, an important target for anticancer immunotherapy. In the past 10 years, trials of immunotherapy with TERT-based vaccines have demonstrated only modest benefits. In this Perspectives, I discuss the possible immunological reasons for this limited antitumour efficacy, and propose that advances in our understanding of the genetics and biology of the involvement of TERT in cancer provides the basis for renewed interest in TERT-based immunotherapy. Telomerase and TERT are expressed in cancer cells at every stage of tumour evolution, from the cancer stem cell to circulating tumour cells and tumour metastases. Many cancer types also harbour cells with mutations in the TERT promoter region, which increase transcriptional activation of this gene. These new findings should spur new interest in the development of TERT-based immunotherapies that are redesigned in line with established immunological considerations and working principles, and are tailored to patients stratified on the basis of TERT-promoter mutations and other underlying tumour characteristics. Thus, despite the disappointment of previous clinical trials, TERT offers the potential for personalized immunotherapy, perhaps in combination with immune-checkpoint inhibition.

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