A growing body of evidence indicates that the expression of TERT, the catalytic subunit of telomerase, is a biological marker of progression in several cancers. We investigated the predictive and prognostic role of TERT levels and telomere length in tissues and peripheral blood in patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). High TERT levels in cancer tissues were independently associated with worse response to therapy (odds ratio [OR]:6.26), regional failure (hazard ratio [HR]:5.75), progression (HR:2.12), and death (HR:3.53). Longer telomeres in the mucosa surrounding the tumor (SM) were independently associated with a lower risk of mucosal failure (HR:0.39). While telomere length in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) significantly decreased with age, no correlation was found between age and telomere length in SM. No associations were found between TERT levels in plasma and telomere length in PBMC and the prognostic variables. High levels of TERT transcripts in cancer cells represent a reliable prognostic marker for identifying HNSCC patients with risk of progression. The altered relationship of telomere length to age in SM compared with PBMC suggests that in a subset of cases the phenotypically normal SM constitutes an acquired telomere-shortened epithelial field prone to genetic instability.
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