Once upon a time there was a group of viruses which infected the animals that lived on our planet long ago. These viruses were also transmitted to humans, known as Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs), and after evolutionary processes, became part of the human genome, sometimes contributing to its functions. But one of these HERVs, about three years ago, jumped to the eyes of researchers who noticed it was activated in severe patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Retroviruses have infected animals and humans for millions of years. These viruses have the ability to integrate into the genome of their hosts and, in certain circumstances, can be transmitted from generation to generation. In the course of evolution these ancestral remnants of viral sequences became multicopy families of genes. Some HERVs play physiological roles, others are inactivated or kept silenced, but few ones retain a pathogenic activity that can be awakened by environmental triggers, such as viral infections. SARS-CoV-2 was shown to activate the production of the immuno- and neuro-toxic HERV-W envelope protein, In patients with COVID-19, the expression of the envelope protein from the HERV-W family it was also clearly associated with the severity of COVID-19 or with a post-COVID disabling syndrome. Altogether the scientific and medical data make this HERV a target for an innovative diagnostic-driven therapeutic strategy.
On June 9 in Frascati, human endogenous retroviruses will be the main theme of a day dedicated to scientific dissemination, during which it will be possible to put in the shoes of scientists and discover, together with the research key players, the advances, the technologies involved and the expected results from the common EU project named HERVCOV.