Acceleration of telomere loss by chemotherapy is greater in older patients with locally advanced head and neck cancer

Brad M. Unryn, Desiree Hao, Stefan Glück, Karl T. Riabowol

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Purpose: Chronic viral infection and combinations of chemotherapeutic drugs have been reported to accelerate telomere erosion. Here, we asked if chemoradiotherapy, using the single agent cisplatin, would accelerate telomere loss in head and neck cancer patients, and whether loss was linked to smoking status, age, gender, or stage of disease at diagnosis. Experimental Design: Blood samples were collected from 20 patients with squamous cell cancer of the head and neck before, during, and after chemoradiotherapy. Following DNA isolation from peripheral blood mononuclear cells, telomere length was measured by terminal restriction fragment analysis. Results: Chemoradiotherapy increased the rate of telomere erosion >100-fold. Telomere length before treatment in chemoradiotherapy patients was similar to age-matched controls. Although smokers began with significantly shorter telomeres, smoking status did not affect chemoradiotherapy-induced attrition, nor did gender or stage of disease. We also make the novel observation that a significantly greater telomere loss occurred in response to treatment in older patients, with those younger than 55 years losing an average of 400 bp of telomeric DNA compared with the 880 bp lost by those over 55 years. Conclusions: The lack of telomere length difference before treatment suggests that shortened telomeres may not be a risk factor for development of head and neck cancer in the age range we examined. Chemoradiotherapy caused a severe telomere length reduction in all patients. The significant difference seen in the elderly (P = 0.018) suggests that chemoradiotherapy may have more severe effects on the replicative capacity of blood cells in older patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6345-6350
Number of pages6
JournalClinical Cancer Research
Issue number21
StatePublished - Nov 1 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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