Background: Nibrin, as part of the NBN/MRE11/RAD50 complex, is mutated in Nijmegen breakage syndrome (NBS), which leads to impaired DNA damage response and lymphoid malignancy.

Results: Telomere length (TL) was markedly reduced in homozygous patients (and comparably so in all chromosomes) by ~40% (qPCR) and was slightly reduced in NBS heterozygotes older than 30 years (~25% in qPCR), in accordance with the respective cancer rates. Humanized cancer-free NBS mice had normal TL. Telomere elongation was inducible by telomerase and/or alternative telomere lengthening but was associated with abnormal expression of telomeric genes involved in aging and/or cell growth. Lymphoblastoid cells from NBS patients with long survival times (>12 years) displayed the shortest telomeres and low caspase 7 activity.

Conclusions: NBS is a secondary telomeropathy. The two-edged sword of telomere attrition enhances the cancer-prone situation in NBS but can also lead to a relatively stable cellular phenotype in tumor survivors. Results suggest a modular model for progeroid syndromes with abnormal expression of telomeric genes as a molecular basis.

Methods: We studied TL and function in 38 homozygous individuals, 27 heterozygotes, one homozygous fetus, six NBS lymphoblastoid cell lines, and humanized NBS mice, all with the same founder NBN mutation: c.657_661del5.