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Immunol Rev. 1996 Aug;152:193-236.

The potential roles of endogenous retroviruses in autoimmunity.

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  • 1Burnet Clinical Research Unit, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Royal Melbourne Hospital, Parkville, Australia.


Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) are estimated to comprise up to 1% of human DNA. While the genome of many ERVs is interrupted by termination codons, deletions or frame shift mutations, some ERVs are transcriptionally active and recent studies reveal protein expression or particle formation by human ERVs. ERVs have been implicated as aetiological agents of autoimmune disease, because of their structural and sequence similarities to exogenous retroviruses associated with immune dysregulation and their tissue-specific or differentiation-dependent expression. In fact, retrovirus-like particles distinct from those of known exogenous retroviruses and immune responses to ERV proteins have been observed in autoimmune disease. Quantitatively or structurally aberrant expression of normally cryptic ERVs, induced by environmental or endogenous factors, could initiate autoimmunity through direct or indirect mechanisms. ERVs may lead to immune dysregulation as insertional mutagens or cis-regulatory elements of cellular genes involved in immune function. ERVs may also encode elements like tax in human T-lymphotrophic virus type I (HTLV-I) or tat in human immunodeficiency virus-I (HIV-I) that are capable of transactivating cellular genes. More directly, human ERV gene products themselves may be immunologically active, by analogy with the superantigen activity in the long terminal repeat (LTR) of mouse mammary tumour viruses (MMTV) and the non-specific immunosuppressive activity in mammalian type C retrovirus env protein. Alternatively, increased expression of an ERV protein, or expression of a novel ERV protein not expressed in the thymus during acquisition of immune tolerance, may lead to its perception as a neoantigen. Paraneoplastic syndromes raise the possibility that novel ERV-encoded epitopes expressed by a tumour elicit immunity to cross-reactive epitopes in normal tissues. Recombination events between different but related ERVs, to whose products the host is immunologically tolerant, may also generate new antigenic determinants. Frequently reported humoral immunity to exogenous retrovirus proteins in autoimmune disease could be elicited by cross-reactive ERV proteins. A review of the evidence implicating ERVs in immune dysfunction leads to the conclusion that direct molecular studies are likely to establish a pathogenic role for ERVs in autoimmune disease.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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