Fraunhofer IZI and University Clinic of the Martin-Luther University in Halle to carry out joint research into the role of endogenous retroviruses in human diseases

The Molecular Drug Biochemistry and Therapy Development (MWT) project group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology in Halle (Saale) is opening up a new field of research with its investigations into human endogenous retroviruses and the role they play in disease development. The group is also being supported by researchers from the Clinic of Neurology and Clinic of Pediatric Medicine at the University Clinic of the Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. The aim of the research is to develop new drugs for the treatment of diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Human endogenous retroviruses, or HERVs for short, form part of the human genome and have accumulated there as the result of viral infections over the course of millions of years. They constitute approximately eight per cent of our genome – a huge figure if you consider that only one per cent of our DNA is assigned to the proteins that we are made of. The integration of retroviral DNA has undoubtedly had positive effects on human evolution. For example, a former viral envelope protein, syncytin 1, is involved in the development of the placenta. During the course of evolution, however, the majority of integrated viral sections have changed so drastically that they have lost their original function.

Researchers at Halle (Saale) University Hospital and the Fraunhofer IZI are now delving deeper into the question of whether certain HERVs, in contrast with the key function of syncytin 1, might also be involved in the development of human diseases in some cases. There is already a substantial amount of evidence to suggest this. A more recent scientific hypothesis implies, for instance, that the "retrovirus associated with multiple sclerosis", a HERV, could be involved in the development of the disease. This is, however, not the only disease in which HERVs might play a previously underestimated role. It is also presumed that HERVs are involved in the development of cancer.

By concluding the cooperation agreement, the clinical and therapy-oriented expertise gained from both institutions are to be pooled together and new HERV-based disease mechanisms will be explored in joint investigations in order to ultimately derive therapeutic approaches.

Other contacts

Department of Drug Design and Target Validation Halle
Dr. Holger Cynis
Phone +49 345 131428-00