Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are remnants of ancient retroviral infections that became fixed in the germ line DNA millions of years ago. The fact that humoral and cellular immune responses against HERV-encoded proteins have been identified in cancer patients suggests that these antigens might be used in cancer immunotherapy or diagnosis. We analyzed the digital expression patterns of the HERV-K (HML-2), -W, -H and -E families in normal and cancerous tissues. Thirty-one proviral members of the HERV-K family and one representative each for the other HERV families were used as probes to search human EST data. Matching of HERV proviruses to ESTs was HERV family-specific and the expression profiles of the HERV families distinct. The HERV-K family was expressed in normal tissues such as muscle, skin and brain, as well as in germ cell tumors and other cancerous tissues. HERV-H was the only family expressed in cancers of the intestine, bone marrow, bladder and cervix, and was more highly expressed than the other families in cancers of the stomach, colon and prostate. In contrast, HERV-W was predominantly expressed in normal placenta. Expression patterns were confirmed by MPSS (massively parallel signature sequencing) data where available. For the HERV-K family, we mapped most ESTs to their corresponding proviruses and assessed the coding capacities of the matched proviruses. This study shows that HERV families are more widely expressed than originally thought and that some members of the HERV-K and -H families could encode targets for cancer immunotherapy.