Autoantibodies against the envelope proteins of endogenous retroviruses K102 and K108 in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus correlate with active disease

Clin Exp Rheumatol. 2021 Oct 13. Online ahead of print.


Objectives: To determine if patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), a disease characterised by elevated type I interferons reminiscent of anti-viral immunity, have expression of human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV-K) proviruses capable of producing envelope (Env) protein, as well as associated autoantibodies against the Env protein.

Methods: ELISAs were conducted with recombinant Env protein and sera from SLE patients with active (n=60) or inactive (n=49) disease, healthy controls (n=47), other rheumatic disorders (n=59), as well as plasma from paediatric lupus patients with active (n=30) or inactive (n=30) disease, and 17 healthy children. Antibody reactivity was evaluated for correlations with clinical and laboratory parameters of the patients. Expression of HERV-K transcripts were profiled in SLE leukocytes by RNA-Seq.

Results: Both adult and paediatric SLE patients had autoantibodies against HERV-K Env with higher titres than healthy controls or patients with Sjögren's syndrome, small- or large-vessel vasculitis, or psoriatic arthritis. Transcripts from only two HERV-K loci capable of producing Env, HERV-K102 and -K108, were detected among the 10 expressed loci in SLE patients.

Conclusions: Our data reveal that HERV-K proviruses are expressed in SLE and that the HERV-K-encoded Env protein elicits an immune response in patients, particularly during active disease.