PURPOSEWe investigated the expression of human endogenous retroviral (HERV) sequences in breast cancer.EXPERIMENTAL DESIGNReverse transcription-PCR (RT-PCR) was used to examine expression of the envelope (env) region of ERV3, HERV-E4-1, and HERV-K in breast cancer cell lines, human breast tumor samples, adjacent uninvolved breast tissues, nonmalignant breast tissues, and placenta. Expression of HERV transcripts was confirmed by Northern blot analysis and in situ hybridization (ISH). To evaluate coding potential, amplified HERV sequences were cloned into vectors for expression and sequence analysis.RESULTSNo expression of ERV3 or HERV-E4-1 RNA was detected in the analyzed breast samples. In contrast, HERV-K transcripts were detected in most breast cancer cell lines and many breast tumor tissues. Expression was detected in a small percentage of matched, uninvolved breast tissues and in placentas but not nonmalignant breast tissues. In HERV-K-positive breast cancer tissues, Northern blot analysis demonstrated full-length proviral and spliced env transcripts. ISH demonstrated expression of HERV-K transcripts in breast tumor cells but not in normal or uninvolved breast epithelial cells. Independently isolated clones of HERV-K env cDNA generated recombinant proteins of the expected size. Sequence analysis of env cDNA clones derived from four breast tumor samples revealed >97% identity with the type I HERV-K102, with no premature termination codons. Independent isolates from the same breast tumor sample showed nucleotide sequence differences, suggesting that multiple loci may be transcribed.CONCLUSIONSThese data indicate that HERV-K transcripts with coding potential for the envelope region are expressed frequently in human breast cancer.