Telomerase activation is prevalent in most epithelial tumors, and may be a critical step in cellular immortalization and carcinogenesis. However, telomerase activity in tumors of mesenchymal origin is not well understood. In the present study, we examined telomerase activity in clinical samples from osteosarcoma and soft tissue sarcoma and representative sarcoma cell lines (HOS, OST and Saos2), using the telomeric repeat amplification protocol (TRAP) assay. The cell lines HOS and OST were telomerase-positive, but Saos2 cells lacked telomerase activity and hTERT mRNA expression. Treatment of Saos2 cells with the demethylating agent 5-aza-2'-deoxy-cytidine, alone or together with the histone deacetylase inhibitor tricostatin A, did not induce hTERT mRNA expression. Twenty-six of the 83 sarcoma samples (31.3%) were telomerase-positive [bone sarcoma, 15 of 42 samples (35.7%); soft tissue sarcoma, 11 of 41 samples (26.8%)], whereas neither benign tumors nor normal bone tissue expressed telomerase activity. There was no significant correlation between histological type, tumor staging and telomerase activity. However, patients with telomerase-positive tumors had significantly shorter survival than those with telomerase-negative tumors. There was heterogeneity in telomere length (range, 6-18 kb) among the tumors examined, but there was no significant difference in length between telomerase-positive and -negative tumors. Thus, these mesenchymal tumors comprise heterologous groups, some positive and some negative for telomerase, with long and short telomeres, suggesting multiple carcinogenesis pathways. The present results indicate that telomerase activation is not prevalent in mesenchymal tumors and is not a critical determinant of telomere length, but it may be a prognostic indicator of mesenchymal tumors.