Human endogenous retrovirus K and cancer: Innocent bystander or tumorigenic accomplice?

Ronan F. Downey, Francis J. Sullivan, Feng Wang-Johanning, Stefan Ambs, Francis J. Giles, Sharon A. Glynn*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

84 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1249-1257
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Cancer
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015


  • Env
  • Gag
  • HERV-K
  • HERV-K activation
  • Np9
  • Rec
  • breast cancer
  • carcinogenesis
  • human endogenous retrovirus
  • immunomodulation
  • melanoma
  • oncogenesis
  • prostate cancer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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