The overall prognosis of patients with advanced melanoma is poor due to the lack of effective treatment. A key factor for successful therapy is an early detection of disease. Therefore, reliably detection methods and meaningful tumor markers are required. Expression of the human endogenous retrovirus (HERV)-K(HML-2) was found elevated in melanomas and it was shown that HERV-K supports the in vitro transition of melanoma cells from adherent to a more malignant, nonadherent phenotype. Furthermore, the detection of HERV-K-specific antibodies in melanoma patients was found to correlate with reduced survival. However, the reason for HERV-K expression in melanomas still remains unclear and its use as a tumor marker needs further investigation. Therefore, the tumor-specific transcriptional regulation of HERV-K expression in melanoma was studied in detail. Human melanoma cell lines were investigated for HERV-K expression using real-time PCR. Five cell lines showed very high levels of HERV-K mRNA as a result of increased promoter activity. This promoter activity was directly silenced by DNA methylation in reporter gene experiments. Higher levels of long terminal repeat (LTR) methylation in cells not expressing HERV-K compared with cells expressing HERV-K were found using methylation-sensitive PCR and bisulfite sequencing. Treatment of cell lines with the demethylating agent 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine resulted in increased levels of HERV-K expression in cells previously not expressing HERV-K and it was shown that this increase is not the result of transcription factor activation. These results demonstrate that increased HERV-K expression in melanomas may be due to increased promoter activity and demethylation of the 5'LTR.
(c) 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.