Human endogenous retroviruses and multiple sclerosis: innocent bystanders or disease determinants?

Biochim Biophys Acta. 2011 Feb;1812(2):162-76. doi: 10.1016/j.bbadis.2010.07.016. Epub 2010 Aug 6.


Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) constitute 5-8% of human genomic DNA and are replication incompetent despite expression of individual HERV genes from different chromosomal loci depending on the specific tissue. Several HERV genes have been detected as transcripts and proteins in the central nervous system, frequently in the context of neuroinflammation. The HERV-W family has received substantial attention in large part because of associations with diverse syndromes including multiple sclerosis (MS) and several psychiatric disorders. A HERV-W-related retroelement, multiple sclerosis retrovirus (MSRV), has been reported in MS patients to be both a biomarker as well as an effector of aberrant immune responses. HERV-H and HERV-K have also been implicated in MS and other neurological diseases but await delineation of their contributions to disease. The HERV-W envelope-encoded glycosylated protein, syncytin-1, is encoded by chromosome 7q21 and exhibits increased glial expression within MS lesions. Overexpression of syncytin-1 in glia induces endoplasmic reticulum stress leading to neuroinflammation and the induction of free radicals, which damage proximate cells. Syncytin-1's receptor, ASCT1 is a neutral amino acid transporter expressed on glia and is suppressed in white matter of MS patients. Of interest, antioxidants ameliorate syncytin-1's neuropathogenic effects raising the possibility of using these agents as therapeutics for neuroinflammatory diseases. Given the multiple insertion sites of HERV genes as complete and incomplete open reading frames, together with their differing capacity to be expressed and the complexities of individual HERVs as both disease markers and bioactive effectors, HERV biology is a compelling area for understanding neuropathogenic mechanisms and developing new therapeutic strategies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Encephalomyelitis, Autoimmune, Experimental / etiology
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / classification
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / genetics
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / pathogenicity*
  • Endoplasmic Reticulum / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gene Products, env / genetics
  • Gene Products, env / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Models, Biological
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Multiple Sclerosis / etiology*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / genetics
  • Multiple Sclerosis / pathology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / virology
  • Phylogeny
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Proteins / genetics
  • Pregnancy Proteins / metabolism
  • Receptors, Virus / metabolism
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Stress, Physiological
  • Unfolded Protein Response


  • Gene Products, env
  • Pregnancy Proteins
  • Receptors, Virus
  • syncytin