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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

siRNA inhibition of telomerase enhances the anti-cancer effect of doxorubicin in breast cancer cells

Xuejun Dong1*, Anding Liu1, Cindy Zer2, Jianguo Feng3, Zhuan Zhen1, Mingfeng Yang1 and Li Zhong24*

Author Affiliations

1 The Molecular Medicine Center of Shaoxing People's Hospital, The First Affiliate Hospital of Shaoxing University, Shaoxing, 312000, PR China

2 Division of Radiation Biology, Department of Cancer Biology and Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program, City of Hope and Beckman Research Institute, 1500 Duarte Road, Duarte, CA 91010, USA

3 Cancer Hospital of Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou, 310022, PR China

4 Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Hebei University College of Life Sciences, 180 Wusi Road, Baoding, 071002, PR China

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BMC Cancer 2009, 9:133  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-9-133

Published: 5 May 2009



Doxorubicin is an effective breast cancer drug but is hampered by a severe, dose-dependent toxicity. Concomitant administration of doxorubicin and another cancer drug may be able to sensitize tumor cells to the cytotoxicity of doxorubicin and lowers the therapeutic dosage. In this study, we examined the combined effect of low-dose doxorubicin and siRNA inhibition of telomerase on breast cancer cells. We found that when used individually, both treatments were rapid and potent apoptosis inducers; and when the two treatments were combined, we observed an enhanced and sustained apoptosis induction in breast cancer cells.


siRNA targeting the mRNA of the protein component of telomerase, the telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT), was transfected into two breast cancer cell lines. The siRNA inhibition was confirmed by RT-PCR and western blot on hTERT mRNA and protein levels, respectively, and by measuring the activity level of telomerase using the TRAP assay. The effect of the hTERT siRNA on the tumorigenicity of the breast cancer cells was also studied in vivo by injection of the siRNA-transfected breast cancer cells into nude mice.

The effects on cell viability, apoptosis and senescence of cells treated with hTERT siRNA, doxorubicin, and the combined treatment of doxorubicin and hTERT siRNA, were examined in vitro by MTT assay, FACS and SA-β-galactosidase staining.


The hTERT siRNA effectively knocked down the mRNA and protein levels of hTERT, and reduced the telomerase activity to 30% of the untreated control. In vivo, the tumors induced by the hTERT siRNA-transfected cells were of reduced sizes, indicating that the hTERT siRNA also reduced the tumorigenic potential of the breast cancer cells. The siRNA treatment reduced cell viability by 50% in breast cancer cells within two days after transfection, while 0.5 μM doxorubicin treatment had a comparable effect but with a slower kinetics. The combination of hTERT siRNA and 0.5 μM doxorubicin killed twice as many cancer cells, showing a cumulative effect of the two treatments.


The study demonstrated the potential of telomerase inhibition as an effective treatment for breast cancer. When used in conjunction to doxorubicin, it could potentiate the cytotoxic effect of the drug to breast cancer cells.