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J Surg Res. 2019 Aug;240:145-155. doi: 10.1016/j.jss.2019.02.009. Epub 2019 Mar 29.

Close to the Bedside: A Systematic Review of Endogenous Retroviruses and Their Impact in Oncology.

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Department of Surgery, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Department of Surgery, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, Virginia; Division of Pediatric Surgery, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, Virginia. Electronic address:



Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are genetic elements in the human genome, which resulted from ancient retroviral germline infections. HERVs have strong transcriptional promoters and enhancers that affect a cell's transcriptome. They also encode proteins that can exert effects in human cells. This review examines how our increased understanding of HERVs have led to their potential use as biomarkers and immunologic targets.


PubMed/Medline, Embase, Web of Science, and Cochrane databases were used in a systematic search to identify all articles studying the potential impact of HERVs on surgical diseases. The search included studies that involved clinical patient samples in diseases including cancer, inflammatory conditions, and autoimmune disease. Articles focused on conditions not routinely managed by surgeons were excluded.


Eighty six articles met inclusion and quality criteria for this review and were included. Breast cancer and melanoma have robust evidence regarding the use of HERVs as potential tumor markers and immunologic targets. Reported evidence of the activity of HERVs in colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, hepatocellular cancer, prostate and ovarian cancer, germ cell tumors as well as idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, and the inflammatory response in burns was also reviewed.


Increasingly convincing evidence indicates that HERVs may play a role in solid organ malignancy and present important biomarkers or immunologic targets in multiple cancers. Innovative investigation of HERVs is a valuable focus of translational research and can deepen our understanding of cellular physiology and the effects of endogenous retroviruses on human biology. As strategies for treatment continue to focus on genome-based interventions, understanding the impact of endogenous retroviruses on human disease will be critical.


Cancer; Human endogenous retrovirus; Retrovirology; Surgical disease


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