Human cancer arises in a stepwise process by the accumulation of genetic alterations in oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes and other genes involved in the regulation of cell growth and proliferation. Many genes, important for the pathogenesis of various cancers and the pathways through which they act, have been characterized over the past decades. Nevertheless, recent successes in experimental models of immortalization and malignant transformation of human cells indicate that the disruption of a limited number of cellular pathways is sufficient to induce a cancerous phenotype in a wide variety of normal cells. In this context, immortalization is an essential prerequisite for the formation of a tumor cell. Besides classical cancer related pathways as the pRB and p53 tumor suppressor pathway or the ras signaling pathway, the maintenance of telomeres plays an essential role in both of these processes. Alterations in telomere biology both suppress and facilitate malignant transformation by regulating genomic stability and cellular life span. This review will summarize recent advances in the understanding of the molecular mechanisms of malignant transformation in human cells and the role of telomere maintenance in these processes. This ultimately leads to the development of cellular models of human cancer that phenocopy the corresponding disease. Furthermore, in the future these models could provide an ideal basis for the testing of novel chemopreventive or therapeutic approaches in the treatment of different types of human cancer.
Keywords: cancer, malignant transformation, tumor suppressor genes, genomes, expression, sarcoma, dna-binding proteins