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Retroviruses in autoimmune liver disease: genetic or environmental agents?

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  • 1Section of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Alton Ochsner Medical Foundation, New Orleans, LA 70121, USA.


Retroviruses have been implicated in the pathogenesis of several human autoimmune conditions including Sjögren's syndrome, primary biliary cirrhosis, immune mediated diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. The human intracisternal A type particle derived from Sjögren's syndrome patients' salivary glands was the first retrovirus to be isolated from a human autoimmune disorder but the agent has yet to be cloned. In primary biliary cirrhosis patients, virus like particles have been observed by electron microscopy in biliary epithelium, endogenous retroviral sequences have been cloned from liver samples, and antibody reactivity to the human intracisternal A type particle has been observed in the majority of patients tested. However, there is no evidence to link the endogenous retroviral sequences in primary biliary cirrhosis patients to the retroviral antibody reactivity or virus like particles. In other patients with liver disease, reactivity to the human intracisternal A type particle was observed in a small but significant proportion of patients with hepatitis C virus infection. If the intracisternal A type particle is an endogenous retrovirus, it is interesting to speculate that hepatitis C virus infection may modulate the endogenous retroviral expression, as chronic hepatitis C has been linked with the development of Sjögren's syndrome. Furthermore, many patients with chronic hepatitis C virus infection have reactivity to an autoantigen of unknown significance known as GOR that has protein sequence homology with both hepatitis C virus nucleocapsid protein as well as HTLV-1 gag. This may be an another example of an endogenous retroviral protein acting as an autoantigen in liver disease patients. At this time, there is little evidence to suggest that endogenous retroviruses are infectious agents that cause autoimmune disease but they may be implicated as either genetic elements or antigens. Further studies will be required to characterize the role that both exogenous and endogenous retroviruses play in the pathogenesis of autoimmune liver diseases.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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