Animal retroviruses are known for their transforming potential, and this is also true for the ones hosted by humans, which have gathered expanding attention as one of the potent causative agents in various disease, including specific cancer types. For instance, Human T Lymphotropic virus (HTLV) is a well-studied class of oncoviruses causing T cell leukemia, while human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is linked to a series of defining cancers including Kaposi sarcoma, certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and cervical cancer. Of note, in addition to these “modern” exogenous retroviruses, our genome harbors a staggering number of human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs). HERVs are the genetic remnants of ancient retroviral germline infection of human ancestors and are typically silenced in normal tissues due to inactivating mutations and sequence loss. While some HERV elements have been appropriated and contribute to human physiological functions, others can be reactivated through epigenetic dysregulations to express retroviral elements and promote carcinogenesis. Conversely, HERV replication intermediates or protein products can also serve as intrinsic pathogen-associated molecular patterns that cause the immune system to interpret it as an exogenous infection, thereby stimulating immune responses against tumors. As such, HERVs have also been targeted as a potential internal strategy to sensitize tumor cells for promising immunotherapies. In this review, we discuss the dynamic role of human retroviruses in cancer development, focusing on HIV and HERVs contribution. We also describe potential treatment strategies, including immunotherapeutic targeting of HERVs, inhibiting DNA methylation to expose HERV signatures, and the use of antiretroviral drugs against HIV and HERVs, which can be employed as prospective anti-cancer modalities.
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