Activation of telomerase seems to be a prerequisite for immortalization and is found in permanent cell lines and most malignant tumors. Normal somatic cells are generally telomerase negative, except for bone marrow stem cells. Weak activity is also present in peripheral blood cells. In the present study strong telomerase activity was demonstrated in vivo in normal mature cells of the immune system, as well as in malignant lymphomas. Benign lymph nodes had lower telomerase activity than benign tonsils, which exhibited intermediate to high activity comparable with findings in malignant lymphomas. In benign tonsils the activity seemed to be restricted to germinal center B cells. In benign lymphoid tissues telomerase activity correlated with B-cell numbers and cell proliferation, but this was not observed in the lymphoma group. High- grade lymphomas exhibited higher levels of telomerase compared with low- grade cases. The data showed that in vivo activation of telomerase is a characteristic feature of germinal center B cells. Different signals for activation of telomerase are likely to exist, one of them being immune stimulation. The data suggest that telomerase activity in malignant lymphomas can be explained by an “induction and retention” model, ie, transformation occurs in a normal, mature B cell with reactivated telomerase, which is retained in the neoplastic clone.

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