HERV buddingThe other day I was talking about immune recognition of human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) in tumors. (HERVs are the husks of ancient retroviruses, now trapped in our genomes. Some of them still express various proteins, either under normal conditions or when stimulated, as in tumors.) One of the reasons this is an interesting finding, is that HERVs may offer a relatively constant antigen, even though the tumors themselves may be highly variable.

There are other, rather obvious, scenarios in which we would like to have a constant antigen in the face of an antigenically-variable disease. For example, HERVs have been proposed to be useful vaccine targets in HIV infection.

One of the many obstacles to overcome in developing a vaccine against HIV is the virus’s rapid mutagenesis. Because of its error-prone replication, HIV can readily escape a lot of immune recognition. Especially when cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) recognize a limited number of antigenic targets, all the virus needs to do to escape immune control is mutate a single amino acid. Usually once the virus does this and escapes immune control, new CTL arise and once again shut down the virus, but only to have new escape variants arise and replicate. Over the multi-year course of an HIV infection, there may be dozens or hundreds of major HIV variants, each escaping temporarily from CTL and destroying T cells during their limited period of freedom.

There are several strategies aimed at reducing the effectiveness of immune escape: targeting multiple HIV antigens, so that the virus would have to simultaneously find many mutations at once; targeting regions in the virus that are so essential that they can’t tolerate mutation; and so on. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was an antigen that wouldn’t change?

HIV and HERVs are distant cousins, both retroviruses, so it seems reasonable that HIV infection might turn on sleeping HERVs. In fact, for nearly 10 years there have been intermittent studies suggesting this might be the case; first based on antibody responses in HIV patients1, and recently with more specific evidence of reactivation of HERVs both in patients2 and in the lab, in infected cells.3

Garrison et al 2008 Fig 6Last fall Douglas Nixon’s group took this to the next step.4 Although the antibody responses1 had suggested that HERVs were immunogenic when turned on by HIV, antibodies aren’t believed to be terrible important in control of HIV; rather, CTL are thought to be critical.5 Nixon’s group showed that in HIV-infected people, there were often functional CTL responses to HERVs; what’s more, the higher the anti-HERV response, the lower the HIV plasma load, implying that the anti-HERV CTL might actually be controlling HIV. (See the figure to the left; click for a larger version.)

As endogenous retroviral sequences are fixed in the human genome, they provide a stable target, and HERV-specific T cells could recognize a cell infected by any HIV-1 viral variant. HERV-specific immunity is an important new avenue for investigation in HIV-1 pathogenesis and vaccine design.

Let’s go back to a paper6 I mentioned last year, where a group looked at genomic variation linked to disease progression in HIV. They found three genomic regions that were linked to viral set-point; one is an RNA polymerase, one is in the MHC region and affects levels of the MHC class I gene HLA-C, and the third … well, the third is a HERV, called HCP5.

The authors pointed out that HCP5 might not be the actual factor involved, because it might be riding along with HLA-B*5701, an MHC class I allele that’s associated with HIV resistance (and I noted that natural killer ligands MICA and MICB are also close by). Still, they clearly like the idea that HCP5 is itself directly involved. They suggested that it might act by an antisense mechanism or something, but I think it might be very interesting to look at CTL responses to HCP5 proteins.


  1. Stevens RW, Baltch AL, Smith RP, McCreedy BJ, Michelsen PB, Bopp LH, Urnovitz HB (1999) Antibody to human endogenous retrovirus peptide in urine of human immunodeficiency virus type 1-positive patients. Clin Diagn Lab Immunol 6:783-786.[][]
  2. Contreras-Galindo R, Kaplan MH, Markovitz DM, Lorenzo E, Yamamura Y (2006) Detection of HERV-K(HML-2) viral RNA in plasma of HIV type 1-infected individuals. AIDS Res Hum Retroviruses 22:979-984.[]
  3. Contreras-Galindo R, Lopez P, Velez R, Yamamura Y (2007) HIV-1 infection increases the expression of human endogenous retroviruses type K (HERV-K) in vitro. AIDS Res Hum Retroviruses 23:116-122.[]
  4. Garrison, K.E., Jones, R.B., Meiklejohn, D.A., Anwar, N., Ndhlovu, L.C., Chapman, J.M., Erickson, A.L., Agrawal, A., Spotts, G., Hecht, F.M., Rakoff-Nahoum, S., Lenz, J., Ostrowski, M.A., Nixon, D.F. (2007). T Cell Responses to Human Endogenous Retroviruses in HIV-1 Infection. PLoS Pathogens, 3(11), e165. DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.0030165[]
  5. Because of the way CTL recognize their targets, by the way, it doesn’t matter if the HERVs produce defective proteins — even a truncated protein that is unstable and rapidly destroyed might be a good CTL target.[]
  6. Fellay, J., Shianna, K. V., Ge, D., Colombo, S., Ledergerber, B., Weale, M., et al. (2007).A whole-genome association study of major determinants for host control of HIV-1. Science, 317(5840), 944-947.[]