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Human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV-K) transcripts detection in babies exposed to HIV-1 during pregnancy

Human endogenous retroviruses of the K family (HERV-K) are among the most recently integrated retroviruses in the human genome. HERV-K mRNA can be detected in normal tissues, but its expression is remarkably enhanced in HIV-1 infected patients due to HIV-Tat induction. Additionally, HERV-K activity stimulates both humoral and cellular responses, suggesting that HERV-specific immunity may contribute to the control of HIV-1 replication in adults. Recently, it was reported that vertically infected children has HERV specific T-cell response.

Since most children born from HIV infected mothers (65-85%) do not get infected despite the possible intra-utero contact with the virus, we evaluated the HERV-K activity in non-infected babies born from: HIV-1 positive mothers (HIV-exposed), and from non-HIV-1 mothers (non-exposed). Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were obtained from 11 babies between 1 to 11-months-old and also from their respective HIV-1 infected mothers. Exposed babies were not breastfed and had no HIV or other viral infection. HERV-K (HML-1-10) transcripts were screened by qRT-PCR, and the expression was evaluated through the absolute threshold-Ct normalized against B-Actin expression.

All babies presented some level of HERV-K expression that could not be differentiated between HIV-exposed and non-exposed groups. The expression was also similar according to the age and ethnic origin. Although all HIV-positive mothers have undetectable HIV-1 load, all but one expressed HERV-K. Thus, because all babies investigated presented HERV-K activity despite the HIV-1 exposure, it is possible that HERV activity in babies could works as a primal immunological mechanism to dealing with the exogenous infectious agents.


This work was supported by FAPESP #2011/13612-9 and #2010/10619-0.

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Correspondence to Camila M Romano.

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This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

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Romano, C.M., Oliveira, D., Gerhardt, D. et al. Human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV-K) transcripts detection in babies exposed to HIV-1 during pregnancy. Retrovirology 11 (Suppl 1), P134 (2014).

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