Shortened telomeres reflect genetic instability that might lead to increased aneuploidy and malignant transformations. Chronic hepatitis C (HCV) viral infection is considered a pre-neoplastic condition that might progress to hepatocellular carcinoma. We evaluated telomere length and elongation, in patients with different stages of HCV to study the correlation between telomere length and the progression of HCV. We analyzed peripheral lymphocytes from 10 patients with chronic active HCV, 10 patients with HCV infection in a remission stage, and 10 healthy, age-matched patients, as controls. The expression of hTERT mRNA, which is correlated with elongation of telomeres was measured using RT-PCR and telomere length was analyzed using Q-FISH and a novel computerized technique. hTERT mRNA was significantly decreased in patients with active HCV and slightly decreased in patients who were in remission, compared to healthy individuals. Telomere length was shorter in patients with chronic active HCV and in patients in remission, compared to the healthy controls. There is a correlation between telomerase reverse transcriptase mRNA expression and telomere length in patients with different stages of HCV infection that might be related to the risk of malignant transformation.
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