Investigating telomere dynamics in oesophageal squamous carcinoma cells using standard and gold nanoparticle-based assays

Bernert, Martin
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Cancer is characterised by abnormal cell proliferation and is one of the leading causes of death in first world countries and the second leading cause in developing countries. In 2012 alone, over 14 million cases were reported and over 8 million deaths were attributed to cancer worldwide, with sub-Saharan Africa, especially South Africa having one of the highest oesophageal cancer rates in the world. An important aspect of cancer is the telomeres, which are 10-15kbp of TTAGGG DNA repeats in humans at the ends of chromosomes. These repeats are maintained by the enzyme telomerase. Up to 90% of all cancers show increased telomerase activity to overcome the "end-replication" problem in which the telomeres shorten after each cell division. This eventually leads to cellular senescence. Due to the high number of cancers relying on increased telomerase activity to bypass senescence, telomerase could be a viable target for anti-cancer therapies. The limiting factor of the multi-subunit telomerase enzyme is its telomerase reverse transcriptase component (hTERT). hTERT has also been shown to migrate to the mitochondria during times of high oxidative stress caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS). Here it confers protection to the mitochondria against ROS, potentially preventing the cell form undergoing apoptosis and reaching senescence. This can potentially be detrimental, as cells become damaged by the ROS and continue dividing. This could lead to further genetic damage. Metformin, a drug used for the treatment of type-2 diabetes, has been linked to lower incidences of cancer. The mode of action of metformin is not yet fully understood, however it is known that it affects the mitochondria. Since hTERT and metformin could co-localise, the drug may influence hTERT and potentially telomerase activity. This makes metformin an anticancer candidate to be used in conjunction with traditional anticancer therapies. To determine telomerase activity in metformin treated oesophageal carcinoma cells, qPCR based telomerase activity assays must be used. These assays can be very expensive and time consuming, so a faster and cheaper alternative would be beneficial. Therefore, the aim of this project was to alter and improve a nanoparticle based detection method for telomerase activity, by decreasing the time required to prepare the DNA functionalised nanoparticles as well as determining a more rapid method of data measurement, and compare it to conventional qPCR based techniques (TRAPeze RT Telomerase Activity Kit – Merck). Thereafter the effects of the metformin treatment on telomere dynamics, such as telomere length, telomerase activity and hTERT mRNA expression, in oesophageal squamous carcinoma cells were determined. Gold nanoparticles were synthesised and functionalised with thiolated-DNA (telomerase substrate). These functionalised particles were characterised using transmission electron microscopy. To assess telomerase activity the extracted protein was added to the functionalised nanoparticle solution and allowed to elongate the coupled DNA. A characteristic of gold nanoparticles is that the size of the particles as well as their proximity to one another determines the colour of the nanoparticle solution. Due to the steric hindrance caused by the now elongated DNA, a distinct colour change was observable. The change in absorption spectra of the nanoparticle solution was recorded after the enzyme elongated the substrate. This nanoparticle based assay was then compared to TRAPeze RT Telomerase detection kit (Merck-Millipore) as a positive control. Using the conventional qPCR based telomerase activity assay, it was found that metformin significantly decreased telomerase activity in oesophageal cancer cell lines, however this was not seen using the nanoparticle assay. A colour change was observed with the nanoparticle assay compared to the negative control reflecting detection of telomerase activity. However, no significant decrease in telomerase activity could be detected due to metformin treatment. More optimisation is required, however this technique has great potential, as nanoparticle based assays are also known for their high sensitivity. This technique is also far more rapid and significantly cheaper that the qPCR based method. The gold nanoparticle based telomerase activity assay could become an alternative to conventional qPCR based techniques.
A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Science, University of the Witwatersrand, in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science Johannesburg, 2017
Bernert, Martin (2017) Investigating telomere dynamics in oesophageal squamous carcinoma cells using standard and gold nanoparticle-based assays, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, <>