Normal human endothelial cells, like other somatic cells in culture, divide a limited number of times before entering a nondividing state called replicative senescence. Expression of the catalytic component of human telomerase, human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT), extends the life span of human fibroblasts and retinal pigment epithelial cells beyond senescence without causing neoplastic transformation (Bodnar, A. G., Ouellette, M., Frolkis, M., Holt, S. E., Chiu, C. P., Morin, G. B., Harley, C. B., Shay, J. W., Lichtsteiner, S., and Wright, W. E. (1998) Science 279, 349-352; Jiang, X., Jimenez, G., Chang, E., Frolkis, M., Kusler, B., Sage, M., Beeche, M., Bodnar, A., Wahl, G., Tlsty, T., and Chiu, C.-P. (1999) Nat. Genet. 21, 111-114). Here, we show that both human large vessel and microvascular endothelial cells also bypass replicative senescence after introduction of hTERT. For the first time, we report that hTERT expression in these life-extended vascular cells does not affect their differentiated and functional phenotype and that these cells maintain their angiogenic potential in vitro. Furthermore, hTERT(+) microvascular endothelial cells have normal karyotype, and hTERT(+) endothelial cell strains do not exhibit a transformed phenotype. Relative to parental cells at senescence, hTERT-expressing endothelial cells exhibit resistance to induction of apoptosis by a variety of different conditions. Such characteristics are highly desirable for designing vascular transplantation and gene therapy delivery systems in vivo.
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