Implication of human endogenous retroviruses in the development of autoimmune diseases

Int Rev Immunol. 2010 Aug;29(4):351-70. doi: 10.3109/08830185.2010.485333.


Retroviruses can exist in an endogenous form, in which viral sequences are integrated into the human germ line and are vertically transmitted in a Mendelian fashion. Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs), probably representing footprints of ancient germ-cell retroviral infections, occupy about 1% of the human genome. Some HERVs emerged in the genome over 25 million years ago, while others have appeared rather recently, at about the time of hominid and ape lineages divergence. Although some of these elements show mutations and deletions, some HERVs are transcriptionally active and produce functional proteins. Some medical conditions, such as cancer and autoimmune diseases, are linked to the transcription of some of the HERVs genes, to the expression of HERVs proteins (that may act as superantigens, for example), and/or to the development of antibodies against them that might cross-react with our own proteins. Their genetic sequences may also be, totally or partially, integrated into genes that regulate the immune response. These mechanisms could give rise to autoimmune diseases, such as lupus erythematosus, insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, multiple sclerosis, Sjögren's syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis, among others. This review is aimed at discussing evidence for a possible role of HERVs in the etiopathogenesis of different autoimmune diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Viral / blood*
  • Antibodies, Viral / immunology
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / immunology
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / virology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / virology*
  • Cross Reactions
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / immunology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / virology
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / classification
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / genetics
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / immunology*
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / immunology
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / virology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / immunology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / virology
  • Sjogren's Syndrome / immunology
  • Sjogren's Syndrome / virology
  • Superantigens / immunology*
  • Viral Proteins / genetics
  • Viral Proteins / immunology*
  • Viral Proteins / metabolism


  • Antibodies, Viral
  • Superantigens
  • Viral Proteins