Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Biomedical Sciences

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Sandy Chang, MD, PhD

Committee Member

Russell Broaddus, MD, PhD

Committee Member

Elsa Flores, PhD

Committee Member

Stanley Hamilton, MD

Committee Member

Guillermina Lozano, PhD


Colorectal cancer is a complex disease that is thought to arise when cells accumulate mutations that allow for uncontrolled growth. There are several recognized mechanisms for generating such mutations in sporadic colon cancer; one of which is chromosomal instability (CIN). One hypothesized driver of CIN in cancer is the improper repair of dysfunctional telomeres. Telomeres comprise the linear ends of chromosomes and play a dual role in cancer. Its length is maintained by the ribonucleoprotein, telomerase, which is not a normally expressed in somatic cells and as cells divide, telomeres continuously shorten. Critically shortened telomeres are considered dysfunctional as they are recognized as sites of DNA damage and cells respond by entering into replicative senescence or apoptosis, a process that is p53-dependent and the mechanism for telomere-induced tumor suppression. Loss of this checkpoint and improper repair of dysfunctional telomeres can initiate a cycle of fusion, bridge and breakage that can lead to chromosomal changes and genomic instability, a process that can lead to transformation of normal cells to cancer cells. Mouse models of telomere dysfunction are currently based on knocking out the telomerase protein or RNA component; however, the naturally long telomeres of mice require multiple generational crosses of telomerase null mice to achieve critically short telomeres. Shelterin is a complex of six core proteins that bind to telomeres specifically. Pot1a is a highly conserved member of this complex that specifically binds to the telomeric single-stranded 3’ G-rich overhang. Previous work in our lab has shown that Pot1a is essential for chromosomal end protection as deletion of Pot1a in murine embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) leads to open telomere ends that initiate a DNA damage response mediated by ATR, resulting in p53-dependent cellular senescence. Loss of Pot1a in the background of p53 deficiency results in increased aberrant homologous recombination at telomeres and elevated genomic instability, which allows Pot1a-/-, p53-/- MEFs to form tumors when injected into SCID mice. These phenotypes are similar to those seen in cells with critically shortened telomeres.

In this work, we created a mouse model of telomere ysfunction in the gastrointestinal tract through the conditional deletion of Pot1a that recapitulates the microscopic features seen in severe telomere attrition. Combined intestinal loss of Pot1a and p53 lead to formation of invasive adenocarcinomas in the small and large intestines. The tumors formed with long latency, low multiplicity and had complex genomes due to chromosomal instability, features similar to those seen in sporadic human colorectal cancers. Taken together, we have developed a novel mouse model of intestinal tumorigenesis based on genomic instability driven by telomere dysfunction.


telomeres, colon cancer, shelterin, Pot1, mouse model