Downey, R. F., Wallace, T., Sullivan, F. J., Wang-Johanning, F., Walsh, K., Durkan, G., . . . Glynn, S. A. (2014, 25 September). Human endogenous retrovirus K expression predicts a prostate cancer diagnosis. Paper presented at the Irish Society of Urology, Killarney, Ireland.
Harbored as relics of ancient germline infections, human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) now constitute up to 8% of our genome. A proportion of this sequence has been co-opted for molecular and cellular processes, beneficial to human physiology, such as the fusogenic activity of the envelope protein, a vital component of placentogenesis. However, the discovery of high levels of HERV-K mRNA and protein and even virions in a wide array of cancers has revealed that HERV-K may be playing a more sinister role—a role as an etiological agent in cancer itself. Whether the presence of this retroviral material is simply an epiphenomenon, or an actual causative factor, is a hotly debated topic. This review will summarize the current state of knowledge regarding HERV-K and cancer and attempt to outline the potential mechanisms by which HERV-K could be involved in the onset and promotion of carcinogenesis.